Should ex-presidents continue in public service?

August 19, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism.

Should a person who has been president of the United States continue in government service after leaving the White House?

Throughout American history, the answer has been “No.” An ex-president has no place in any branch of government. Outside public service? Maybe, just as what Jimmy Carter has been doing in the 40 years since he left office. But inside the government? No.

There have only been three exceptions (that I know of) to this generally held belief: John Quincy Adams, who served for 17 years in the House of Representations; Andrew Johnson, who served briefly in the U.S. Senate; and William Howard Taft, who became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Why do we think that ex-presidents should not hold other governmental positions? The answer usually given is that it would be “demeaning,” both to the office and to the person. But is that really the case.

John Quincy Adams did not think so. After he had failed in his bid for reelection in 1828, he returned to his native Massachusetts, prepared to live his life in gentle retirement. But he was both bitter and bored — bitter that his efforts as president had not been appreciated enough by the public to grant him a second term and bored because he had been so active in public service up to that point. Adams, at the age of 11, had joined his father on a diplomatic mission to Europe and had held government positions from the time he was a young adult.

When it was proposed that he put his name forward as a candidate for the House, a friend — so the story goes — told him that an ex-president would demean himself by doing so. Adams’ response was that an ex-president would not be demeaned “by serving as a selectman of his own town council if the people elected him.”

Adams entered Congress in 1831 and used all of his knowledge, experience, skill, and prestige in bringing an end to slavery and to helping America achieve the ideals of its Revolution. For most of the next two decades, he argued that America should face up to the fact that slavery could not be justified in a nation that valued civil liberties. He foresaw its end but did not live to see it.

The example of John Quincy Adams demonstrates that ex-presidents may indeed have an important role to play after they have held the “highest office in the land.”


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