10 of the Greatest Comebacks in History

10 of the Greatest Comebacks in History

D.G. Hewitt - July 18, 2018

Historical comebacks are relatively rare. In the ruthless world of politics, one slip-up can often be enough to derail a career entirely, with the voting public rarely forgiving and forgetting. And outside of the political circus, the world can be just as cruel. For centuries, rulers have known that, if they are deposed they run the risk of not just losing their positions of power but potentially their heads too!

However, sometimes historical figures have been granted a second chance. In many cases, a strong sense of self-belief has helped royals or politicians bounce back from oblivion. At other times, great comebacks have owed just as much to sheer good fortune as they have to cunning and tenacity. So, from American political giants who we might never have heard of had they not enjoyed great second acts, to kings and queens who never knew when to quit, here we have 10 of the greatest comebacks of all time:

10 of the Greatest Comebacks in History
Nixon pulled off one of the greatest political comebacks in American history. Newsweek.

Richard Nixon

The politician’s life is usually one of highs and lows. Dependent on public support, even the savviest politicians can fall out of favour and there are many instances of individuals running for – and winning – office after seemingly being down and out. But arguably nothing compares to the political comeback achieved by Richard Milhouse Nixon. It wasn’t a quick turnaround, but it was remarkable, not least since it ended with him sitting in the White House as the 37th President of the United States.

By the end of 1962, it seemed like Nixon had gone as far as he could politically. Fiercely ambitious, he had set his sights on the highest office in the land. And, he had certainly come close, being chosen as the Republican candidate for the Presidency in 1960. However, he was comprehensively defeated by JFK. His performances in the televised debates leading up to the election made him look old, flustered and evasive, especially when compared to the youthful, vibrant JFK. Then, when he was defeated in his bid to become Governor of California just two years later – a defeat he took badly, issuing an infamous ‘sore loser’ speech – it looked like Nixon’s hopes of great power were dashed for good.

However, this was not to be the case. The years after that 1962 election defeat are known as Nixon’s “wilderness years”. However, while he may not have been on the public scene, he was still plotting a comeback. With his family in tow, Nixon travelled through Europe, building important political and business connections. He shrewdly decided not to even try and go for the 1964 Presidential election, feeling that public sympathy was with the Democrats following JFK’s assassination. However, he campaigned tirelessly for Barry Goldwater. When Goldwater lost comprehensively, Nixon emerged unscathed and with the goodwill of the Republican party behind him once again.

By the end of 1967, Nixon’s mind was made up: he would go for the top job for a second time. Presenting himself as a figure of stability and appealing to the “silent majority” of Americans who were socially conservative and suspicious of the hippy culture, he won the nomination. He went on the offensive against President Johnson and, in a three-way race, he came out on top. Nixon was sworn is as President on 20 January 1969 and would go on to win a second election.

Infamously, however, his second term in office was cut short. The Watergate Scandal forced him to resign the office. While he was pardoned by President Gerald Ford, this was one low Nixon could not come back from, even if he did spend his later years rehabilitating his image by traveling extensively and offering his advice on matters of foreign affairs. Nixon died in 1994 at the age of 81.


10 of the Greatest Comebacks in History
Winston Churchill declared he was finished at 40, but then he came back! Wikipedia.

Winston Churchill

Sir Winston Churchill is widely seen as the ultimate politician. He stood up for what he believed in and was ready to switch party allegiance to do so. What’s more, while he suffered notable lows, he refused to be defeated. And, indeed, while some men might have considered giving up after being out of the political game for more than a decade, ‘Winnie’ persevered and would go on to lead his country through its ‘Darkest Hour’. More than a century after he declared “I am finished” and looked set to spend most of his life in the political wilderness, he is regarded as a true political titan and has been named one of the greatest Britons of all time.

Churchill was born into a rich, aristocratic family in 1874. After a spell in the Royal Cavalry and as a part-time journalist, he went into politics and first served as a Member of Parliament for the Conservative Party in 1900. His rise was swift. He switched to the Liberal Party and, over the next 10 years, gained more and more power. When Britain got embroiled in the First World War, Churchill was appointed the First Lord of the Admiralty. So, when the Gallipoli Campaign failed in 1915, the buck stopped with him. Churchill endured widespread criticism and was forced to resign. He famously stated: “I am finished.” He was just 40 years old.

Though he may have publicly stated that he believed his political career to be over by that summer of 1915, privately, Churchill was quietly plotting his comeback. And what a comeback it was to be. He volunteered to fight on the Western Front. Though he only spent a couple of months at the front, he was able to return to London with his reputation somewhat restored, and so, by 1924, he was back in favour and serving as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, this time serving the Conservative Party. By 1929, however, he was back in the political wilderness. The Tories were out of power and Churchill was a minor MP, increasingly isolated and seen as a curmudgeonly drunkard. He was to remain ‘in the political graveyard’ as he called it for 11 long years. But then, in 1940, he was called on to serve his country again, and the rest is history.

Remarkably, after his leadership of Britain during the Second World War, Churchill would go on to enjoy one more comeback – a second ‘second act’ – winning the 1951 election and serving as Prime Minister for a second time. After almost four years in office, he resigned in April 1955 and would then spend his final decade at his home of Chartwell, largely filling his days writing history books and his memoirs.

10 of the Greatest Comebacks in History
King Edward IV successfully navigated the dynastic minefield of Medieval England. Wikipedia

King Edward IV of England

England in the Middle Ages was a political mess. This was especially true in the period leading up to, and immediately after, the War of the Roses. This conflict saw the two distinct branches of the Plantagenet dynasty, the House of York and the House of Lancashire, battle it out for the throne. Power changed hands on several different, due in no small part to the habit of major players routinely switching allegiances. And nobody epitomised this turbulence quite like King Edward IV. He enjoyed power, lost it and then finally enjoyed one of the greatest comebacks seen in Medieval Europe.

Edward was born April 1442 in Normandy, France. Since he was a Yorkist, he had to grow up seeing a rival on the throne. Luckily for him, however, he came of age when the ruling Lancastrian monarch, Henry VI, was weak and vulnerable. His grip over England was weakening by the day and, by 1460, Edward and his allies sensed an opportunity. Crucially, the young Edward won the support of the Earl of Warwick, a figure so influential he was known as ‘The Kingmaker’. With Warwick behind him, Edward launched his bid for the throne. After a series of bloody battles, culminating in the 1461 Battle of Towton, Henry was overthrown. Edward IV was crowned King of England.

Once in power, Edward should have been able to consolidate is rule. However, not only was he tall, handsome and charismatic, he was also a serial womaniser. This wasn’t a problem until he fell in love with Elizabeth Woodville. Not only was she a Lancastrian, she was also already a mother and she was from common stock. When news of Henry’s secret marriage to Elizabeth leaked out, many were fearful he would never be able to consolidate his position. Significantly, the Earl of Warwick switched his allegiance to the ousted King Henry VI. The Lancastrians revolted and Edward fled across the water to the Netherlands.

Edward could have lived a comfortable life with his wife in Holland. However, he was determined to win his throne back. And so he launched a spectacular comeback. Despite only having a relatively small army to draw on, he sailed back into England and confronted his enemies head-on. Remarkably, he defeated The Kingmaker on the battlefield, leaving the path to power open to him. He took back the throne in April of 1461. Henry was thrown into the Tower of London, where he was murdered just a few weeks later (though whether he was killed on the orders of Edward is the subject of great historical debate). This time round, Edward enjoyed a relatively uneventful reign, dying of natural causes in 1483, aged just 40.

10 of the Greatest Comebacks in History
Ulysses S. Grant gave up his military career, but then came back for the Civil War. Wikipedia.

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses G. Grant is regarded by many as one of the greatest Americans of all time. He was a successful soldier and a politician, rising to the rank of general and becoming President. However, his rise to power and prominence wasn’t smooth. Far from it, in fact. Indeed, Grant went through a very low period and, for some time, it looked like he would wind up a bankrupt drunkard. However, through perseverance and the luck of being in the right place at the right time, Grant accomplished a remarkable comeback.

Born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, in 1882, Grant was raised around horses and might have followed his father into the tanning business. However, as a young man, he went to the West Point military academy, graduating with distinction. As an officer, he served, also with distinction, in the Mexican-American War. Upon his return, he married and started a family. Everything was looking good for Grant. He was even selected to head west and command troops in the newly-established territory of Oregon. However, neither Grant nor his family enjoyed life so far from home. In 1854, he quit the army, aged just 32.

Grant was determined to make a success of civilian life. He settled in Missouri, where the climate better suited his nature, and tried to make his fortune farming and trading leather. However, times were tough and soon he was struggling to provide for his family. Before long, he was heavily in debt and, to cope with the stress, he was drinking a lot more than he ever had before. Had the American Civil War not erupted in April of 1861, it’s highly likely Grant would have remained a financially destitute drunk. However, it did, and it offered him the chance to start anew and embark on a truly remarkable comeback.

Since he had graduated from West Point and had served with distinction before, Grant was welcomed into the Union Army with open arms. After a slow start to his rekindled military career, Grant won notable victories first at Fort Donaldson and then at the Battle of Shiloh. Before long, President Lincoln became convinced that Grant was the man to take control of the armed struggle and, in 1864, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General and put in charge of the whole of the Union Army. Thanks to his tactical prowess, aggression and a small slice of luck, Robert E. Lee offered the surrender of the Confederate forces to Grant in April of 1865. Grant had won the Civil War.

But his comeback didn’t end there. In 1868, Grant was elected to the office of President of the United States. Under his leadership, the national economy became stable once again, plus he also started building bridges between the North and the South. While historians have mixed views of his presidency, nobody can deny his success in turning his life around. Within less than a decade, he had gone from being a near-bankrupt drunk to sitting in the White House having masterminded victory in the bloody Civil War.

10 of the Greatest Comebacks in History
Abraham Lincoln bounced back from defeat to become a true great man. Biography.com.

Abraham Lincoln

In the autumn of 1958, Abraham Lincoln was feeling down. His dreams of following up a career in law with a seat in the U.S Senate had been dashed thanks to his election defeat to Stephen Douglas. He was almost 50 years old and, to the outside observer, it might have appeared that Lincoln had come to the end of the road. After all, many people who had seen him campaigning for the Senate seat had come to see him as dark, brooding and unapproachable. But far from giving up, Lincoln learned from this setback and before long he was on the comeback trail.

The defeat to Douglas was a major blow to Lincoln’s ambitions. The pre-election debates between the pair had really captured the imagination and huge crowds turned out to see them spar. So when he lost, Lincoln was really devastated. According to some historians, it hit him hard on a personal level, not just a professional level. Nevertheless, by 1860, he had secured the Republican Party presidential nomination for that year’s election. But right up until polling day, many people, including those within his own party, felt Lincoln had next to no chance of winning.

Some historians and Lincoln biographers have credited the man himself as being the main driving force behind his great comeback. Lincoln learned lessons from his debates with Douglas and honed his public persona accordingly. He learned to be more approachable and less aloof, presenting himself as a real man of the people. By the spring of 1860, he had become a genuine celebrity when politicians were usually grey, anonymous figures. So much so, in fact, that he opted against campaigning in the immediate build-up to the 1860 election, preferring to stay at home and strategize instead. Nevertheless, he proved his many critics wrong and won, earning the office of President of the United States.

As well as being regarded as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – American President of all time, Lincoln’s rise from political near-death to the White House has also been touted as the ultimate comeback story. While his failures have often been greatly exaggerated (with the ‘Abraham Lincoln Didn’t Quit lists that are posted far and wide on the internet especially guilty of this), there’s no doubt that he was not always destined for greatness. He might have thrown in the towel on several occasions, most notably after one of several election defeats, but he kept going and driving himself all the way to the top.


10 of the Greatest Comebacks in History
Benjamin Disraeli was broke and struggling before he entered politics. Wikipedia.

Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli dominated British politics for around 30 years in the 19th century. Even today, his name is well known in his native land and he is regarded as a true political heavyweight, responsible for reimagining party politics and the House of Westminster. However, though he is widely admired today, life didn’t always go so well for Disraeli. As a young man, he struggled financially and even personally. Even when he decided to go into politics, he had to endure a series of setbacks. But nevertheless, he persevered and ensured that his great comeback story had a happy ending.

Disraeli was born into a relatively wealthy family in London in 1804. Despite his Jewish heritage, he was baptised as a Christian, thereby allowing him to enter politics at a later date. After a costly private education, he went into law, but was a reckless and ambitious young man. Aged just 18, he decided to invest heavily in South American mines. The gamble paid off and he lost a lot of money. Worse, he was plunged into serious debt – so serious, in fact, that he wouldn’t pay it all off until he was a middle-aged man.

His financial ruin caused Disraeli to have a breakdown. For four years, his biographers note, he did almost nothing with his life. Even after this spell, he focused mainly on having a good time in literary London than on making the most of his obvious intellect. By 1830, he had resolved to move away from business and embark on a career in politics. But even this didn’t go smoothly. In fact, it was a disaster. Disraeli stood for election on four separate occasions in 1831 and 1832, losing all four times. People knew of his financial worries, plus his flamboyant nature often worked against him. It looked like he was doomed to be forever remembered as a failure.

However, Disraeli refused to give up on his political dream. In 1837, he was finally elected to Parliament, winning a seat for the Conservative Party. Once he was firmly on the inside of the establishment, there was no stopping him. By 1852, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, holding one of the most powerful positions in the land. He oversaw the complete revision of Parliament and then, in 1868, when Lord Derby retired, his time had come: Disraeli was Prime Minister. He would hold the top job until February of 1874, completing his remarkable comeback from political no-hoper to the most powerful man in all of Britain.

10 of the Greatest Comebacks in History
Napoleon returned from exile to rule for 100 more days. Wikimedia Commons.

Napoleon Bonaparte

For almost decade, Napoleon Bonaparte dominated Europe. Though relatively diminutive in stature, he was a true military and political giant. At the height of his powers, Napoleon defeated the armies of Austria, Prussia and Russia and he looked unbeatable. But, as with every stage of European history, his dominance couldn’t last forever. He was eventually defeated and forced into exile. But even this couldn’t keep him down and, less than a year after being thrown out of his native France, he not only plotted his comeback, but he actually went and pulled it off…

After enjoying a series of remarkable military successes, Napoleon finally suffered a setback when he tried to invade Russia in 1812. The strategic gamble cost him a large portion of his army and so he then suffered a series of crushing defeats, most notably at the Battle of Leipzig and the Battle of Reims. In April 1814, Napoleon’s time was up. He stepped down from the throne, with King Louis XVIII taking over as leader of France. His enemies decided to exile him to the island of Elba, off the western coast of Italy, while they got busy redrawing the map of Europe.

Napoleon might have lived out his days in comfort on the sun-kissed island. Instead, he spent just under 10 months on Elba. He was determined to get back to mainland Europe and halt the destruction of the French Empire. Remarkably, he slipped off the island under the noses of the British and the French. With 1,000 men under his command, he sailed back to mainland France unopposed. Indeed, rather than firing on him, troops supposedly loyal to the King of France joined Napoleon instead. Before long, he was back in Paris and King Louis fled. He took command of France again and immediately got to work reorganising the government and, more importantly, of getting his armies ready to fight back against the allied powers determined to impose the terms of the Congress of Vienna on Europe.

Napoleon’s comeback from exile to being the single most powerful man in Europe was indeed remarkable. At the same, however, it was also short-lived. His second spell as Emperor is known as the Hundred Days, because this is exactly how long it lasted. Far from defeating his enemies once and for all, Napoleon himself was routed by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. Again, he was sent into exile, this time to Saint Helena. The British territory was truly remote, and so from here there was to be no second comeback. Napoleon stayed on the island for six years before he died of ill health in 1821, aged just 51.

10 of the Greatest Comebacks in History
Justinian II had his nose cut off to prevent his return, but still he came back. Wikipedia.

Justinian II

Justinian II was one of the most power-hungry and ruthless rulers of the Middle Ages. He was the last Byzantine Emperor of the Heraclian Dynasty and, following on from the rule of his father, Constantine IV, was determined to restore the Roman Empire to its former glory. However, while his father had also been a strongman, he also had charisma and political finesse, allowing him to keep opposition at bay, Justinian II had little of this and made many enemies. However, even when he was deposed, he was able to gather himself and launch one of the most notable comebacks of all time.

Born in 668 or 669, Justinian II was declared Emperor in September 685. He managed to cling on to power for a decade. However, over the years, opposition to his rule kept on growing, with his enemies forming alliances against the unpopular Emperor. As well as frustrating tribal leaders, he also angered the wider population through his taxation policies. Eventually, in 695, the people rose up under Leontios. The Greek declared himself Emperor and Justinian was sent into exile. As was common in Byzantine culture, his nose was cut off, not just to humiliate him but to ensure he would be less likely to become popular again and try and regain power.

In his absence, Leontios was usurped by Tiberius, but few people in Constantinople missed Justinian. He was able to contact some old friends and allies while living in exile in modern-day Crimea. In the year 705, he had enough men under his command to try and make his comeback. Justinian sailed through the Black Sea back to Constantinople. He survived a terrible storm and saw this as a sign of his destiny. When he and his 15,000-strong army finally reached the city, however, the people refused to open the gates to them. Undeterred, Justinian found a way in through an old aqueduct. He had returned, and, though the rules declared that a deformed man could never rule, he ignored this.

Justinian’s second term as Emperor was even more brutal than his first. He slaughtered his opponents, including the two men who had ruled while he was in exile. However, before long, he was facing trouble again. A second uprising was launched. Justinian was captured and executed by the side of a road in December 711. He may have engineered a comeback of epic proportions, but he was still reliant on the goodwill of the people, and his power-hungry nature was to be his downfall.

10 of the Greatest Comebacks in History
Grover Cleveland remains the only President to serve non-consecutive terms. Wikimedia Commons.

Grover Cleveland

He may never feature in any list of ‘America’s Greatest Presidents’, but Grover Cleveland will always have a place in the history books. After all, he is the only man to have served two non-consecutive terms in office as the President of the United States. The fact he achieved this is testament to his unwillingness to let electoral defeat derail him completely. Indeed, just four years after losing office, Cleveland achieved a remarkable – and unprecedented – comeback which saw him return to the White House.

Cleveland was born in Caldwell, New Jersey, in March of 1837. As a young man, he worked as a lawyer and, within a few years of passing the bar, was making a name for himself for his hard work and tenacity. However, he was soon distracted from his burgeoning legal career and chose to get involved in politics. For a few months in 1882, he served as the Mayor of Buffalo and then, from 1883 until early 1885, he was the Governor of New York. It was here, in the Big Apple, where Cleveland really came to prominence, and his resistance to political corruption impressed the Democratic party leadership. He was invited to stand as their candidate for the 1884 presidential election.

Cleveland won the election, but only just. He won the popular vote by just one-quarter of a per cent, even if the electoral college system had him as a clearer victor over the Republican James D. Maine. Cleveland was sworn in as the 22nd President of the United States and got to work reforming fiscal policy while also reshaping American foreign policy. He was so active and hard-working that he easily secured the Democratic nomination again in 1888. This time he was up against the Republican Benjamin Harrison. A badly-run campaign, alongside aggressive Republican attacks on Cleveland’s fiscal reforms, and in particular of his tariffs policies, meant that he lost, even losing his home state of New York. Cleveland was out of office and a private citizen once again.

Far from simply retiring from politics as many one-term Presidents did before and after him, Cleveland refused to give up. Indeed, from the very moment he was forced to give up the top job, he stated his belief that he would return one day. He even told White House staff: “I want you to take good care of all the furniture and ornaments in the house, for I want to find everything just as it is now, when we come back again.” Sure enough, he was right. While working as a lawyer in New York, Cleveland was also laying the foundations for his comeback. He became a charismatic public speaker and the go-to expert on economic policies. So prominent was he that he was the natural choice for the Democratic party when they looked to compete the 1892 election.

However, Cleveland’s return wasn’t all plain sailing. He still had the stigma of an election defeat and another potential candidate, Senator David Hill pushed him close. Nevertheless, Cleveland finally managed to get his party’s nod. The election was a straight-up rematch of 1892, with Cleveland against President Harrison. In the end, since Harrison’s wife was gravely ill, he hardly campaigned. Out of respect, Cleveland similarly declined to campaign. Still, he won comfortably and his political comeback, from private citizen to the 24th President was complete. He would serve as President until 1897 and then live until 1908, dying at the age of 71.

10 of the Greatest Comebacks in History
Eleanor of Aquitaine survived the death of Henry II to come back to prominence. Wikimedia Commons.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s life was rich, colorful and complex. It was also one of considerable highs and lows. Indeed, after a bright start to her life, she suffered humiliation and then persecution. However, at an age when most women would have been expected to retire from the public eye and give up their political meddling, Eleanor mounted a stunning comeback. It’s largely due to this resilience and refusal to give up that she is widely regarded as one of the greatest women in British history, even if she was born and raised over the sea in France…

Eleanor was born in the French city of Poitiers in 1124, the daughter of the hugely powerful Duke of Aquitaine. When her fathered died, she became Duchess of Aquitaine at the age of just 15. She was the most eligible woman in all of Europe and was soon wed to King Louis VII of France. Far from being happy to stay at home, she loved to travel and she took part in the Second Crusade. However, the marriage was not a happy one and, in 1152, Eleanor and Louis split, their union annulled on the grounds that they were cousins. Before long, she was engaged to the Duke of Normandy and, two years later, he became King Henry II of England.

Eleanor’s second marriage was a fruitful one. The couple had eight children, even though Henry spent much of his time abroad fighting the Third Crusade. While the King was away, Eleanor took control of the court, and did an excellent job of it. After all, she was 11 year’s her husband’s senior and, by then, a savvy political operator. In 1173, the couple’s sons plotted to overthrow their father. Forced to take sides, Eleanor sided with her sons, perhaps due to her husband’s serial philandering over the years. The revolt failed. Eleanor escaped to France but was soon captured and brought back to England where she was condemned to live the rest of her life under house arrest.

Eleanor spent more than a decade as a semi-prisoner. However, Henry II died in 1189. Eleanor was free, and she launched a spectacular comeback. Before long, she was playing a greater political role than ever before. Not only did she smooth the way for Richard the Lionheart to take the throne, she looked after his kingdom while he was away on Crusade. What’s more, when Richard was captured, it was Eleanor who delivered his ransom in person and brought him back to England. When Richard died in 1199, Eleanor was 80 years old. Still, she would not retire. Richard had not left a successor, so the Plantagenet dynasty was highly vulnerable. Eleanor personally traveled to Spain to fetch her granddaughter to marry an Englishman. The move worked, and Eleanor finally retired. She died in 1204, with the second chapter of her amazing life confirming her as one of the greatest figures in European history.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“On this day in 1152: Eleanor of Aquitaine marries Henry II.” Dominic Selwood, Daily Telegraph, May 2017.

“History of Sir Winston Churchill.” Gov.uk.

“Nixon’s Comeback.” The Richard Nixon Foundation.

“Ulysses S. Grant.” WhiteHouse.gov.

“Abraham Lincoln and Failure.” Snopes.com.

“Napoleon Bonaparte: Top 10 Political Sequels.” Time.com, February 2010.