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Culture.Mil - They Served Before They Led

Written by Jenifer Chrisman on November 17, 2015.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again. Who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause. Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

– Theodore Roosevelt (“The Man in the Arena”)


Since the first presidency in 1789, thirty-one of forty-three presidents (72.09 percent) have served in the United States military. While there are forty-four presidencies (as of 2015), Grover Cleveland served two separate terms as both the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

President Period(s) of Active Duty Rank Branch
George Washington 1752-1759,
General and Commander in Chief
(5-stars posthumous)
Continental Army
John Adams      
Thomas Jefferson NA Colonel Virginia Militia
James Madison NA Colonel Virginia Militia
James Monroe 1776-1778 Major Continental Army
John Quincy Adams      
Andrew Jackson 1779, 1791,
Major General U.S. Army
Martin Van Buren      
William Henry Harrison 1791-1798,
Major General Kentucky Militia
John Tyler NA Captain Virginia Militia
James Knox Polk NA Colonel Tennessee Militia
Zachary Taylor 1808-1815,
Major General U.S. Army
Millard Fillmore NA Major Union Continentals
(home guard)
Franklin Pierce NA Brigadier General New Hampshire Militia
James Buchanan 1814 Private Pennsylvania Militia
Abraham Lincoln 1832 Captain Illinois Militia
Andrew Johnson 1862-1865 Brigadier General U.S. Army (volunteers)
Ulysses S. Grant 1843-1854,
General U.S. Army
Rutherford Birchard Hayes 1861-1864 Major General U.S. Army (volunteers)
James Abram Garfield 1861-1865 Major General U.S. Army (volunteers)
Chester Alan Arthur 1861-1863 Brigadier General New York Militia
Grover Cleveland      
Benjamin Harrison 1862-1865 Brevet Brigadier General U.S. Army (volunteers)
Grover Cleveland      
William McKinley 1861-1865 Brevet Major U.S. Army (volunteers)
Theodore Roosevelt 1898 Colonel U.S. Army (volunteers)
William Howard Taft      
Woodrow Wilson      
Warren Gamaliel Harding      
Calvin Coolidge      
Herbert Clark Hoover      
Franklin Delano Roosevelt      
Harry S. Truman 1917-1919 Colonel Army Officer Reserve Corps
Dwight David Eisenhower 1915-1948,
General of the Army U.S. Army
John Fitzgerald Kennedy 1941-1945 Lieutenant U.S. Naval Reserve
Lyndon Baines Johnson 1942 Commander U.S. Naval Reserve
Richard Milhous Nixon 1942-1946 Commander U.S. Naval Reserve
Gerald Rudolph Ford 1942-1946 Lieutenant Commander U.S. Naval Reserve
James Earl Carter Jr. 1946-1953 Lieutenant U.S. Navy
Ronald Wilson Reagan 1942-1945 Captain U.S. Army
George Herbert Walker Bush 1942-1945 Lieutenant (junior grade) U.S. Navy
William Jefferson Clinton      
George Walker Bush 1968–1974* First Lieutenant Texas Air National Guard
Barack Hussein Obama      

From state militias to current branches of service, one rose to the rank of General of the Army (5-stars), one received 5-stars posthumously and one never rose past the rank of private.

The early militia – or citizen-soldiers – were formed from the ranks of laborers, farmers and middling men. They defended community and home at need. Unlike the army, they did not travel from theatre to theatre, but returned to their citizen labors while remaining alert for the next threat.

The Militia Acts of 1792 provided the president with the authority to take command of the state militias “whenever the United States shall be invaded, or be in imminent danger of invasion from any foreign nation or Indian tribe” and organized the state militias, conscripting every eighteen- to forty-five-year-old “free able-bodied white male citizen.” In 1903, a new Militia Act was passed, which codified circumstances under which they could be federalized. Now National Guard, they received federal funding to pay for equipment and training used to meet the education, training and readiness requirements of active-duty units.

The Continental Army, then augmented by the militia, was the backbone of the struggle during the Revolutionary War, becoming one of the cornerstones that allowed the United States to thrive. Founded in 1775, it was quickly followed by the Navy and Marines, and later by the Coast Guard and Air Force:

  • Army (USA) – June 14, 1775
  • Navy (USN) – October 13, 1775
  • Marines (USMC) – November 10, 1775
  • Coast Guard (USCG) – August 4, 1790
  • Air Force (USAF) – September 18, 1947

During their military tenures, militia or branch of service, those thirty-one presidents served our country and its people. They stood for our freedom and the proud traditions of the United States military. They represent all those who have and will fight in defense of our great nation. Although not all of them served in conflict, they learned, each in his own way, those things the military values highest and strives to teach its Service Members: brotherhood, courage, determination, discipline, duty, fortitude, honor, integrity, loyalty, morale, pride, respect, sacrifice, selfless service…


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