When the Band has Ceased to Play, American Presidents After Leaving Office
What happened to Millard Fillmore, or Martin van Buren, or Theodore Roosevelt, for that matter? Thirty-four men have lived to the end of their service and retired from the most powerful office in the nation. What did they do then? Here are a series of vignettes about their post-presidential lives that capture the personalities and the times they lived in. More
Thomas Jefferson objected to the provision in the U.S. Constitution that allowed a president to be reelected after his four-year term in office. Jefferson knew history. He had seen how the elected Stadholder of the Netherlands, and the elected King of Poland, and the elected Holy Roman Emperor had all led to hereditary monarchies. He foresaw that the elected President of the United States would be elected again and again, constantly tightening his grip on power, and finally bequeathing the office upon his death to his son.
And we know this happens in the modern world. The President of Egypt is easily reelected at the end of each term and is now preparing his son to succeed him. The President of Zimbabwe, tottering into the infirmities of old age, clings to power and will probably drag his nation down into the grave with him. In Algeria and Soviet Russia, the idealists who made the revolution were, in each case, cast aside by a man who grabbed control of the levers of power and ruled on and on until death. Even when the ruler obeys his constitution and leaves office at the end of his term, he will often continue running the country from behind the scenes as happened in Mexico and Russia.
Yet, it did not happen in that new revolutionary country, the United States of America. It is true that many of its presidents took advantage of the right to re-election and served a second term (the one president who served more than two terms died in office). However, all those who lived to the end of their terms voluntarily handed over the reins of power and quietly left as the band began playing for somebody else. Some, like Chester Arthur and Ronald Reagan, left the White House terminally ill and had neither the energy nor the wit to play a further role. Others, like Martin Van Buren and Theodore Roosevelt, tried, in vain, to return to power at the head of a new revolutionary movement. Still others, like Andrew Jackson and Millard Fillmore, returned to play a role in local politics. Two, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Johnson, were elected by their fellows to return to Washington and take an active part in Congress.
How did this happen? How did it come about that the turnover of office for the most powerful position in the nation (and now in the world) has gone so smoothly, time and time again? Thirty-four times the President of the United States, the embodiment of the state, the powerful commander in chief of all the armed forces, has quietly slipped off the garments and pomp of the office, and left it all in the hands of someone who was often from another party. James Polk detested Zachary Taylor and considered him unfit for the office, but he handed the Presidency to him. Martin Van Buren was deeply insulted by the campaign that unseated him, but he gave the keys of the office to William Henry Harrison, whom he considered a dithering old fool. Abigail Adams thought that the election of Jefferson would lead to mob rule and anarchy, but she and her husband left for their farm.
And what did these once all-powerful men do after leaving office? In most cases, they had many followers whom they could have mobilized into potent political forces that would harass the new President--none of them did, George Washington, John Adams, and John Tyler returned to their farms and estates. Calvin Coolidge and Benjamin Harrison returned to being the small town lawyers they once were. Franklin Pierce retired to his home to drink himself to death. Millard Fillmore became the official town greeter of Buffalo. Harry Truman went walking in Independence. Maime and Ike Eisenhower lived in a real home of their own for the first time in their married lives.
Here are the very human stories of these men after they threw off the mantel of power.