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How Many United States Presidents Were Governors First?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Many US presidents were governors first, perhaps representing the faith of the people in the office of governor. If a person can successfully lead a state in the US, voters may think, then they may also be able to lead the country. Several presidents were governors and then held many different political offices, including Senate and House representative positions, and/or serving in the vice presidency.

In all, 17 presidents were governors first. A few of them were not governors in the modern sense of the term; that is, they governed territories rather than states. Andrew Jackson acted as military governor to the Florida Territory and as governor to the Northwest Territory in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. William Harrison governed the Indiana Territory for 12 years at the beginning of the 19th century. William Taft served as Governor-General in the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century.

In the early years of the US, the following presidents were first governors:

  • Thomas Jefferson: the first president to hold the position of governor, served as Virginia’s governor from 1779-1781.
  • James Monroe: served as Governor of Virginia from 1799-1802, and again served for a brief period as the 16th Governor of Virginia from January through April in 1811.
  • John Tyler: another Governor of Virginia, serving from 1825-1827.

These presidents were governors of a variety of other states:

  • Martin Van Buren: Governor of New York in 1829.
  • James Polk: Governor of Tennessee, serving from 1839-1841.
  • Andrew Johnson: Governor of Tennessee from 1853-1857 and then appointed by Lincoln to serve as military governor of Tennessee from 1862-1864.
  • Rutherford Hayes: Governor of Ohio from 1868-1872 and again from 1876-1877.
  • Grover Cleveland: Governor of New York from 1883-1885.
  • William McKinley: Governor of Ohio from 1892-1896.

Numerous presidents were governors first in the 20th century. The list begins with Theodore Roosevelt, first Governor of New York from 1899-1901. Others on this list include the following:

  • Woodrow Wilson: Governor of New Jersey from 1911-1913.
  • Calvin Coolidge: Governor of Massachusetts from 1919-1921.
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Governor of New York from 1929-1933.
  • Ronald Reagan: Governor of California from 1967-1975.
  • Jimmy Carter: Governor of Georgia from 1971-1975, and the first elected governor from the South post Civil War.
  • Bill Clinton: Governor of Arkansas for two separate terms, from 1979-1981 and from 1983-1992.
  • George W. Bush: Governor of Texas from 1995-2000.
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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a America Explained contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon96769 — On Jul 16, 2010

I think Palin and Clinton both have a lot more experience than Obama. Clinton as Senator, First Lady, and Secretary of State. I think she'll do as Obama did though, campaign near center then move way left. Palin was a governor. She got experience in running a state. Seven presidents were governors first, including the two before Obama. The candidates who stay close to center should be considered most seriously. Too far left or right is how we got here and as far left as Obama has gone, things will get worse.

By anon89907 — On Jun 13, 2010

McCain is too old and sick to be our president, palin can't manage her family life let alone a country. Obama is more of a motivation to this country than anything else. I am tired of seeing white people in the white house who only can resole the nations problems with war. This is no way to resolve the issues of the united states.

Sure the 911 attack triggered the war but nothing has come of it. Since the bush administration there has only been war and still no resolution. I'm pretty sure the 911 attack was caused by the invasion in afghanistan and they wanted pay back. It has helped a lot in my view that obama is our president. I've seen more resolution in two years than four years of the previous presidents. This is only my opinion!

By anon20285 — On Oct 28, 2008

I find it interesting that so many people say Sarah Palin doesn't have enough experience, yet Obama has even less?

By blackbetty — On Oct 09, 2008

So do we want a man whose mother could be the defendant of a slave owner and a father who could be the descendant of a tribe that captured other tribes and sold them off to slavery. Think about it. This African American has nothing in common with any other African Americans whose families are descendants from slaves.

By anon18361 — On Sep 21, 2008

To anon 18257,

"...level of inexperience...."?

Palin alone has more executive experience than Obama, not to mention the considerable experience of McCain. And that's the VP ticket, not the President. You can't hide that fact behind your mention of Obama's "analysis". Hell, I've more analysis of the nation's current affairs than all of them put together. Does that qualify me over Obama?

By anon18257 — On Sep 18, 2008

I see nothing questionable about my point on foreign affairs. Even hard line conservatives like David Brooks are angry about the choice of Palin. McCain does have an incurable condition. Melanoma is never considered cured because of its rate of recurrence. And he (McCain) allowed people to look at his medical records for three hours, handpicking doctors and a few people to see them and refusing any copies of them.

I think it is vital to compare the experience of Obama/Palin, because Palin might very well end up running the country. The more we see of her apparent forcefed answers in interviews, the more concerned I grow that this VP choice might end up at the top, no matter that she apparently lacks significant experience to govern a full country. There's also little evidence that she has the judgment if she lacks the experience. More information about her governance in the state suggests she runs a very Bush like government.

On the other hand, when you look at Senator Obama's analysis of the current foreign crises, he has been right on. Check the news on the surge in the next few days, which may be taking a significant downturn and if working, why so many soldiers left in Iraq. His advice on Pakistan, a timeline in Iraq, and on a few other matters has been dead on.

I just don't think the presidency or vice presidency are jobs you should "cram for" with a few advisors. It scares me to see this level of inexperience on an executive ticket.

By anon18241 — On Sep 17, 2008

anon18146 - You are right about the length of governance, and also the ability a governor possesses. Your other points though do not seem to be quite accurate.

In your first point you are comparing a candidate running for president vs a candidate running for vice-president. Those are very different positions with very different responsibilities. You are not comparing apples to apples.

Your second point about foreign affairs is again questionable. You are comparing a short term senator running for presidency against a governor running for the VP and somehow assuming that a senator has better grasp of foreign affairs. On what basis? Where are the facts?

As far as Obama being like Lincoln, because they both did not have any executive experience, and a short time served as senators, does not automatically make them great presidents.

Yes, Lincoln was our great president, but does that mean that anybody with 2 years in the senate would make a great president? You might prefer one over the other, but the reasons you gave are not serious reasons.

By anon18146 — On Sep 16, 2008

I think it really depends upon how much governance experience you have, and really, how prepared you are. Personally, the governor running on the 2008 US Republican ticket as VP would not be my choice as president because her executive experience is short, and she seems to have a poor grasp of foreign affairs. Yet she's running with a person who has had recurrent melanoma and won't fully release his medical records.

In contrast, on the opposite ticket, Senator Obama has experience equivalent to one of our greatest presidents ever, President Lincoln.

By motherteresa — On Sep 16, 2008

Being governor of a state is a good training ground for a president. Some of the duties performed by a governor are the same as that of a president. Just the presidents duties are done on a much larger scale.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a America Explained contributor, Tricia...
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