Grant went form being a destitute, disgraced former army officer to Lieutenant General in 5 years; and then President four years later?

Has any national leader in all of history every had such a rapid rise from broke to national leader in such a short period of time?

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    I am reading a bio -- I had no idea how badly off he was prior to the Civil War. Basically was working in the family leather store, hands-on, not wholesaling but retail, involving curing hides and other menial tasks. In fact, his lack of business success would have made on guess he would not have risen very high even in the army despite his West Point credentials. Maybe in a different war he would have ended up differently also.
    – Jeff
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 9:20
  • @Jeff yup. And he hated the leather business. He worked for his dad’s leather business when he was younger. His brother took over the business and was working there when war broke out. I’m not seeing and answers here that convince me. All those other people had some status prior to their ascent. Grant was fully disgraced in the spring of 1861 and by the spring on 1864 he was head of all US armies: on merit. Commented May 24, 2019 at 19:16

11 Answers 11


Vaclav Havel Went from prisoner to president of Czechoslovakia in a few months.

Ruhollah Khomeini went from exiled dissident to leader of Iran in a couple of months.

Vladimir Lenin went from exiled dissident to leader of Soviet Russia in around six months.

Nelson Mandela went from prisoner to president of South Africa in four years.

  • 3
    Mandela is the best of these four answers, because being imprisoned for 27 years, he started from "nothing." The others were "conventionally" successful and middle class.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 18:21
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    All these people had national standing before their low point. Isn’t Grant unique the speed of his rise from absolutely no-one to worrying Lincoln about the 1864 election? Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 22:24
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    Thomas Sankara was enjailed, then Prime Minister, then enjailed, then President. Napoleon Bonaparte, in 11 years, was nobody, then corporal, captain, general, consul and emperor. Caligula's horse was just a horse and allegedly became a general.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 21:15
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    And a multiple times bankrupt entrepreneur has raised to Ulysse Grant's former position...
    – Evargalo
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 21:24
  • The current US president would not count, as he was a known public figure going all the way back to the 80s.
    – user15620
    Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 0:24

I can think of one.

He dropped out of high school and spent a large part of early adult years as a homeless, wandering man, with an affinity for painting, from which he sometimes made a living, although not the one he dreamed about. This period of life ended when he joined the military, rose to lance corporal, was wounded twice, and was decorated for bravery.

Upon being demobilized, he went into civilian life as a glorified gangster leader. He was jailed for his actions as such, and paroled shortly before Christmas in Year 0. (While in prison, he wrote a detailed and surprisingly prescriptive book about what he would do if he ever got into power.)

By the end of year 6, the political party of which he was the head, burst on the scene with a surprisingly strong electoral showing after years of obscurity. In year 8, he ran for President and polled a respectable 37% of the vote in a three way race in which the winner was a retired general and war hero twice his age. (The man got more than his theoretical one-third share.) At the beginning of year 9, he was offered and accepted a consolation prize, the number two spot in the country, despite the fact that he was not a native born citizen of said country. Shortly afterward, he managed to convince his government to pass a law saying that his job should carry both executive and legislative powers, making him and not the President the real leader of the country. In any event, this became moot when the President died a year later. He became the second most powerful man in the world (after the then American President), even making the cover of Time magazine in December of year 14.

Unfortunately, I'm talking about Adolf Hitler. In prison as a foreigner to the country, serving a sentence for high-treason, released early in December 1924, appointed chancellor in January 1933.

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    @StevenBurnap: IMHO, yes.I'm talking about the heads of the first and second most powerful countries in the world in the late 1930s.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 5:40
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    Maybe it depends on how you define "powerful". Economically maybe but not militarily.
    – user15620
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 5:44
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    Napoleon Bonaparte went from a prisoner of the Thermidorean Reaction in 1794 to Emperor of France in 1804. Jean Lannes went from simple grenadier in 1796 to Marechal of France in 1804, though he had earlier experience of great merit. Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 21:37
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    v good answer from Tom Au in my opinion
    – Timothy
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 21:53
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    @PieterGeerkens: Napoleon and Lannes were both members of the noblity. Prison"was just a "stop" for them; they "had it made" even if they hadn't gotten to the top. What's remarkable about my "choice" (whom I hate to name again) is that he started out as a street bum, and rose to "gang leader" before being arrested, and then rose to the top of a country not his native land. In all fairness, Napoleon was born in Corsica.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 22:25

I think this is rather common. Just a few that I can think of off the top of my head are:

  1. Basil I, born to peasants, he was still a peasant in the mid 830s, but by 867 he was sole ruler of the Byzantine empire.

  2. Maximinius Thrax, born not only a peasant but also a non-Roman until the edict of Caracalla. Joined army as recruit, within 10 years was elevated by Severus to commander of Legion IV and later elevated by his troops to emperor (though for a very short time).

  3. Diocletian, born around 244 to either a freedman (first generation freed from slavery) father or a slave father (so possibly a slave himself), joined the army as recruit. Began his ascension around 282 when appointed Protectores domestici and made senator, within 3 years with the death of Carus he was sole Roman emperor.

  4. Ivaylo the Cabbage of Bulgaria, born a peasant in late 1200s, basically rounded up a bunch of peasants, marched on the capital, won a battle with the kings troops and, then, married the queen and became king himself. Another one who was overthrown shortly after.

  5. Theodora, this one is a little different, but she went from an actress or prostitute (depending on source) to Empress of the Byzantine Empire within a couple years.

  6. Henri Christophe, born in 1767 as a slave, joined army in 1790s as conscript, was a general by 1802, and was King Henry I of Haiti by 1811. Committed suicide in 1821.

I think there were tons and tons of examples of rulers that had a meteoric rise to power and an equally meteoric fall from power. The ones like Diocletian that actually stayed in power and did good things are much more rare.

Also I think these are all rather well known stories, but I will provide sources if requested.

  • Maximus Thrax was not exactly a barbarian by modern standards since he was an inhabitant of a highly advanced and civilized society. And by Roman standards he might not have been foreign enough to be called a barbarian. He was born a provincial subject of the Roman Empire and became a Roman citizen in 211. No matter how much snobbish senators looked down on him he was now legally as Roman and non barbarian as they were.
    – MAGolding
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 2:43
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    he was still born to peasant parents and without a doubt the senate did not consider him one of "them" ie the ruling elite and referred to him as a barbarian probably as an insult (you know how catty those roman senators could be) but regardless of his citizenship, his rise from common solider to emperor is rather amazing.
    – ed.hank
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 13:37
  • @MAGolding - removed the barbarian part, as it was more a Senate insult than the actual truth.
    – ed.hank
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 13:44
  • The story of Catherine I of Russian is similar to Theodora's. She went from servant girl to ruler of Russia.
    – user15620
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 21:37

Two contenders from West Africa

Jerry Rawlings - Ghana: from junior air force officer on death row to Head of State in a few days.

Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings (later known as ‘Junior Jesus’ to his supporters) was an unknown but charismatic 31-year-old fighter pilot when he took part in an attempted coup on 15 May 1979. Court-martialled together with six fellow officers at the end of May, Rawlings caught the public imagination when he justified the coup as an attempt to end corruption and mismanagement, and absolved his colleagues of any responsibility, saying that he was prepared to die for the cause.

Sentenced to death at the court martial, Rawlings was sprung from jail on the evening of 3rd June and made head of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council which took power on 4th June, some 2 weeks before scheduled democratic elections. Remarkably, Rawlings allowed the elections to go ahead and handed over power to the election winner on 24th September 1979.

Rawlings later staged another coup and was in power for almost 20 years, the last 8 years as the democratically elected President. He relinquished power in 2001, as required by the constitution.

Samuel Doe - Liberia: from Master Sergeant to Head of State in six months

Samuel Doe, who had completed his high school education by correspondence but could not afford to go to college, was made Master Sergeant in October 1979. In April 1980, the 29-year-old son of rice farmers and a group of soldiers staged a bloody coup during which President Talbot and 26 others were killed. Ten days later,

thirteen of the most senior officials of the Tolbert government were stripped down to their underwear and publicly executed on a Monrovia beach.

Doe's repressive regime came to an end in 1990 when he was killed (brutally - he was videoed being tortured and then decapacitated) by a breakaway faction of Charles Taylor's guerrilla army.


Harry Truman was a failed farmer(1913) and haberdasher(hat salesman, 1922); who had never graduated from college and lived with his mother in law..

In 1923 he became a judge, in 1935 a US senator, in Jan 1945 the Vice President, and in April 1945 President of the United States.

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    As large a rise as Grant's but over a much longer period of time (32 years).
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 4:06
  • 3
    +1 just for invoking the fond memory. I think it was an old episode of Mash I saw someone lose their cool over a snobbish attitude and yelling at the guy that his president was a few years prior a "haberdasher".
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 20:57

In 1793, Napoleon Bonaparte was a 23 year old artillery officer who had to flee Corsica with his family because of a political rift with the Corsican nationalist Paoli.

He soon attracted the notice of the Committee of Public Safety (under Robespierre) and was made commander of the Siege of Toulon. He survived multiple upheavals in the French government, at one point putting down Royalist riots in Paris with cannon.

In 1796, he was put in command of an army barely holding off the Italians and proceeded to overrun the whole country.

A coup in 1798 made all of the remaining politicians dependent on his support. 5 years after being a refugee, he controlled France and a sizeable chunk of Western Europe.

Despite an ill-advised campaign in Egypt and the Levant, where he abandoned a whole army and crept back into France in secret, he was able to make himself "First Consul" in 1799, and the French republic was swept away.

He repeatedly defeated various coalitions of foreign powers alarmed by France's continual expansion, and forced all of the Continental powers to humiliating settlements. In 1804, he made himself Emperor.

Napoleon's greatest victory, the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz, happened six weeks after the beginning of his downfall, the Battle of Trafalgar, and his fall was just as fast as his rise.


Most phenomenal rise was by Zhu Yuanzhang who went from being an orphaned from a destitute peasant family to the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. His rise to power took about 11 years.

Summarized in list form:

  1. Until he was 16 years old, he was in a poor peasant farming family. They were so poor that several of his siblings were "given away". When he was 16, his family died during a famine.

  2. After being orphaned, he was a homeless wanderer until about age 20. At that time, he became a Buddhist monk. While Buddhist monks were not rich, at least he had a place to eat and sleep, and he learned to read and write.

  3. In 1352, the monastery was destroyed by a Mongol Army. Zhu Yuanzhang joined an insurgent force called the Red Turbans.

  4. In 1358, Zhu Yuanzhang was the leader of his own army, later called the Ming.

  5. In 1360, the Ming conquer Nanjing and projected control over much of the Yangtze River valley.

  6. In 1363, his forces controlled most of central China, without any serious rivals. (FWIW, 1363 - 1352 = 11 years ) Just some mopping up against small armies to do.

  7. By 1368, his army defeated the Mongols of the Yuan dynasty and had control over most of China. Ming dynasty is declared, and Zhu Yuanzhang became the Hongwu Emperor.

It depends how you count is; 11 years or 16 years. In either case, the rise from Orphaned Buddhist monk to founding a new empire in a little more than a decade could be a bigger achievement than the other answers. He ruled for more than 30 yeras, and the Ming empire lasted for more than 250 years, so he was fairly effective too.

The people in the other answers tended to have only a short term impact on History. This man belongs on a "most important people in history" list.


Gustav Eriksson went from fugitive without anything to him but his name to King of Sweden in less than three years.

In September 1519 he escaped from his imprisonment in Denmark. In November 1520, his father, and most male relatives, were killed in the Stockholm bloodbath by Christian II of Denmark. His female relatives were imprisoned, and the family holdings confiscated. He was essentially a fugitive in Sweden, with no close relatives or possessions. He went to Dalecarlia to rouse the inhabitants there to rebellion.

In January 1521, he was appointed commander of the Dalecarlians, who marched south and successfully captured several castles and towns. Other parts of Sweden also rebelled. In August the same year, he was appointed Steward of the realm by the rebellious Swedes. He also managed to get money and troops from Lübeck in 1522. He was elected king on June 6 1523, and from October the same year, he controlled all of Sweden.

  • 4
    Well, he was of a noble family.
    – liftarn
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 8:03

Roman Emperor Julian.
When he was around five years old many of his relatives were killed by Constantius. His life was spared only thanks to empress Eusebia. He was excluded of public life.
His exile was lifted at the age of 18.
When he was 22 years old, he was suspect of treason. But again, his life was spared, he spent his days studying in Athens, away of public life.
When he was 23 years old, he was summoned to be Caesar of the West. Because he was the only relative alive of the current Emperor.
After a civil war, with 29 years old, he was the sole Emperor of Rome.

Hence, that man was probably the most powerful person in the globe, but few years before he was nobody, only a survivor of several intrigues.


Sapor II, King of Kings of Iran and of Non Iran, went from literally not existing to monarch in much less than the 9 years that Grant rose from his lowest status to be president, being crowned in the same year he was born, and thus less than two years after conception - according to legend he was crowned in his mother's womb.

Of course Sapor didn't do anything to become monarch.

According to Gildas in The Ruin of Britain Maglocunnus the Island Dragon usurped his first throne about AD 500 when in earliest adolescence, and thus in a much shorter time after birth than in the case of Grant.

Elagablus, a hereditary high priest, son of a senator, descended from kings and related to emperors, usurped the throne of the Roman Empire in 218 in a bloody Civil War aged 14, though older family members did most of the planning for him.

In 238 AD, the Year of the Six Emperors, the civil wars and assassinations resulted in Gordian III, related to Gordian I and Gordian III, becoming sole emperor at the age of 13, though it is unknown what if anything he personally did to gain the throne.

Himiko or Pimiko, Queen of Wa, who lived in Yamatai somewhere in Japan, died in 248. According to Chinese records:

When Himiko passed away, a great mound was raised, more than a hundred paces in diameter. Over a hundred male and female attendants followed her to the grave. Then a king was placed on the throne, but the people would not obey him. Assassination and murder followed; more than one thousand were thus slain. A relative of Himiko named Iyo [壹與], a girl of thirteen, was [then] made queen and order was restored. Chêng issued a proclamation to the effect that Iyo was the ruler. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:16)


So Iyo or Toyo became queen age 13, though there is no record of how much she did to gain the throne.

  • 1
    You list legends or minors from going from 0 to 100. OP asked for real persons going from subzero back to the top? Commented May 22, 2019 at 20:32
  • Absence of evidence (of prior exalted status) is not evidence of absence.
    – C Monsour
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 22:15

Dwight Eisenhower went from never holding any form of public office to being president, in 1952.

He wasn't flat broke, but he had no experience as a legislator.

He did have decades of political experience as a military officer (a very political position), leader of a fractious alliance, and then leader of NATO.

  • 3
    "Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe" is a rather higher starting point than "destitute former soldier".
    – Mark
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 0:40

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