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Growing Up To Be President: Little Known Stories From Presidential Childhoods

by Kate Kelly

Did the families of our presidents ever suspect that one day their sons would grow up to be president?  Was there an educational path to political success, or was there a common ingredient in the backgrounds of those who eventually became the leader of our country?

To all questions, the answer is ‘no’.  The men (and thus far it has only been men) who have become President of the United States came from varied backgrounds and the educational preparation for the job ranged from a few months of schooling to advanced academic degrees.  

While each man’s experience was certainly shaped by the era in which he lived, the fact that our country has been governed by people with such diverse backgrounds speaks well for our future; there will undoubtedly be more diversity to come.  

To consider how very different their experiences were, let’s take a look at three few of the more famous presidents:  Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.  

President LincolnAbraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
President from 1861-1865

When we learn about Abraham Lincoln’s childhood, it is hard to believe that this man grew up to become a great orator and a strong and principled leader of our country who guided our nation through its darkest time.  
Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky in 1809.  He and his sister Sarah (known as Sally) were born to Nancy Hanks and Tom Lincoln.  Tom was an uneducated but relatively successful Kentucky farmer but as more people made their way into Kentucky, Lincoln found that the laws did not protect him from people who were out to poach his land.  He became angry and frustrated and soon moved his young family to Perry County, Indiana.
The area where they settled was largely unsettled (an average of 3 people per square mile) and the land was untamed.  Abe Lincoln later described life in this area known as Little Pigeon Creek as a fight “with trees and logs and grubs.”  While the family worked hard at farming, Tom had to rely on hunting most days in order to feed his family.  Tom eventually built a one-room cabin for the family but there was no flooring and little furniture. The family slept on corn husk beds that frequently were inhabited by bugs and visited by rodents.

Their mother, Nancy, was very religious and taught the children about the Bible, and she believed in the importance of education.  However, schools were uncommon in these lightly populated areas.  When Abe was about seven, a school opened nine miles away, and Nancy insisted to Tom that the children be allowed to attend.  (At best, the walk to school would have taken the children 2.5-3 hours each way so it was a major commitment.)  The school did not last long, however the importance of education was impressed upon Abe’s mind.

When Abe was nine (1818), Nancy became very ill with “milk sickness.” This was an illness we don’t hear about anymore but several of their neighbors had already died from it.  Today scientists know that if cows ingest a plant known as white snakeroot, it goes through to their milk, and some people become sick and die from it.  

Nancy’s death left Sally and Abe in the sole care of their father, who was overwhelmed by the need to hunt daily and still trying to cultivate the land so they could grow some food.  Historians report that he was a tough man who was known to knock his son down in anger at times; whether he would have been viewed as abusive or whether he was a “man of his day” is debated by experts.  

The children were heartbroken at losing their mother, and the house was a mess without Nancy to bring order to it. Tom realized he needed help, so he left nine-year-old Abe and eleven-year-old Sally alone in the cabin while he returned to Kentucky to find a new wife.  The children had little to eat other than dried berries that had been stored away by Nancy.  A neighbor who stopped by reported that the children were terribly skinny, filthy, and the house was in terrible condition.

Abe and Sally were alone for half of the following year. They must have been certain they had been abandoned.  However, six months later, Tom pulled up in a horse-drawn wagon with a new wife and her three children.  Abe was said to have run to this new mother whom he had never met and immediately bury his face in her skirts.  

Abe’s blind faith in her was well-placed.  Sarah Bush Johnston was a loving person whose first order of business was getting her new husband to make household improvements including a wooden floor as well as a wooden door and a window.  She was even-handed in her treatment of Abe and Sally and her own three children.  Though she herself could not read, she heard from Tom about Abe’s efforts to read, and she brought with her six books.  Among them were Pilgrim’s Progress, Parson Weem’s Life of Washington (which is now recognized for the myths it told about our first president), and Aesop’s Fables. Though the family had little money for paper, pencils or books, Sarah did what she could to get a few things so Abe could study.  Another opportunity for the children to attend school occurred after Sarah arrived, and she, too, saw the importance of it.  The school was only a mile away but it only lasted for three months.  

Lincoln had grown tall and strong, and as was customary in that day, a son under legal age was obligated to give any earnings to his father.  Tom profited by hiring Abe out to help other farmers or business people.  Lincoln did a bit of traveling in working for others.  Finally at the age of 22, Abe packed his few belongings and moved to New Salem, Illinois.
While Abe clearly loved the women who had raised him, there is little doubt that there was no love for his father.  Reporters frequently sought information about his family background, but Lincoln rarely talked about it, not mentioning his father at all. When Tom Lincoln died in 1851, Abe did not attend the funeral.

Theodore RooseveltTheodore Roosevelt 1858-1919
Served as president from 1901-1909


Teddy Roosevelt was born into a wealthy family in New York City but health issues meant that he had a very sheltered childhood. Today it is known that he suffered symptoms of asthma, a disease that was not well understood in that day. Remedies of the time included having a child drink caffeine or smoke in an effort to open air passages; of course these would not have been effective, and smoking, particularly, would have been counter-productive.  

Roosevelt’s father spent time with his children, and on a hiking trip in Europe, he noted that his son improved when the family exercised regularly. Theodore Sr. came home resolving to establish a plan for strengthening his sickly son.  A room in the family’s Oyster Bay mansion was turned into an exercise room, and Teddy was encouraged to hike, wrestle, swim, and go horseback riding or rowing…whatever would help build up his strength. Young Teddy succeeded in gaining enough strength that he was “normal” and mostly healthier.  Later in life, Roosevelt was to spend three years out on his ranch in North Dakota. It was during this time that in the West when Teddy developed into a very capable and well-respected outdoorsman.

Teddy also suffered from another problem that was not well understood at the time. He had poor vision for seeing into the distance. (This is known as nearsightedness, meaning he could see things that were near but not far.)  When he was 13, he was given his first gun and in his autobiography, he notes that he was puzzled as he watched his companions take aim at things; he saw nothing.  He eventually discussed this with his father, and Teddy soon got his first pair of glasses.  “I had no idea how beautify the world was until I got those spectacles.”
 
In 1872, when Theodore was 14, he made a trip with the family down the Nile.  Teddy actively collected plants and animals he found on that trip, and he resolved that he was going to be a natural scientist.  While he did not actually pursue this career goal, he contributed much to the Museum of Natural History in New York City.  He also became an ardent conservationist.  

EisenhowerDwight D. Eisenhower  (1890-1969)
Served as president from 1953-1961


Dwight D. Eisenhower came to national prominence and was elected to the presidency in 1953 because of his esteemed military career.  During World War II, he served well and honorably as the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe.  No one would have predicted this future for Eisenhower, as he came from a Mennonite family that did not support the military. They believed pacifism was the way to solve world problems.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the third born son out of seven brothers.  When he was only a year old his family moved to Abilene, Kansas.  The family was quite poor and relied on their garden for most of what they ate, and the boys were expected to help with chores such as feeding the chickens, gathering eggs, and milking the cow and bringing in firewood.   
Most children in the early twentieth century needed some way to add to family income.  Eisenhower found that he could make money for the family by selling some of the family’s unneeded vegetables to other residents of Abilene.

Eisenhower was a good athlete and hoped to go to college but it was clear that the family couldn’t afford it.  He learned that if he qualified, he could get a free education at the naval or military academy. However family obligations to an older brother took precedent, and Ike went to work at the local creamery, where his father was employed, in order to help put his older brother Edgar through law school.  

In making that decision, Ike became too old to apply to the Naval Academy where there were strict age requirements for those who attended.  However, he eventually received an appointment to West Point.  His mother was saddened by his acceptance to West Point, because she didn’t believe in war or fighting, but she didn’t interfere, and Ike believed strongly that an education was worth it.  And he proved to be so smart and capable that he rose to be Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force.  
Both Democrats and Republicans sought him for their party. He eventually accepted the nomination to be president from the Republican party.

These stories of a few of our presidents are just a few of the little-known stories available at Kate Kelly’s website www.americacomesalive.com   In February (Black History Month) and March (Women’s History Month), Kate will be profiling many leaders from backgrounds that up until recently could not have led to the White House. 

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