The Childhoods of U.S. Presidents
The Childhoods of U.S. Presidents
I’ve taken six of the best-known presidents of the United States and looked at their childhoods to understand the influence of their early lives on their presidencies.
George Washington, 1st U.S. President
Everyone has heard the famous story about George Washington and the cherry tree. Young George supposedly took a hatchet and chopped down a cherry tree. When his father confronted him, George confessed, saying “I cannot tell a lie.” This story was made up to demonstrate the good character of our first president. Sorry, the story is not true. It was included in a biography of Washington written by Parson Weems in 1809, ten years after Washington’s death. It has been told to children ever since.
George Washington was born in Virginia on February 22, 1732 His father, Augustine Washington was a member of the gentry (people of high social status, plantation owners). His mother, Mary Ball Washington, was Augustine’s second wife. George was the third son, the first of his mother’s six children.
George’s father died when George was only 11 years old, and thereafter he was shuttled from relative to relative—living with his mother, other relatives, and later his older brother, Lawrence who he adored.
When George was 14, he wanted to join the British navy, but he reluctantly stayed home in obedience to his mother's wishes. By the time he was 16, he had completed his basic education and learned taught himself to be a surveyor—a person who measures plots of land.
The two oldest sons inherited whatever land and wealth Augustine possessed. George knew from a young age that if he wanted wealth and status he was going to have to earn it himself.
Thomas Jefferson, 3rd U.S. President
Thomas Jefferson was born into a wealthy family on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell plantation in Virginia.
Thomas’ father, Peter Jefferson, was from a modest family. His father was a self-educated man who became successful as a cartographer, surveyor, and planter. He eventually rose in prominence and was appointed to leadership positions--sheriff, colonel, and ultimately, a representative to the House of Burgesses.
Thomas’ mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, came from an aristocratic family that could trace its origins back to the kings and queens of Scotland and England.
Thomas was the third child, and eldest son, in a family of eight children. His father died when he was fourteen.
Thomas spent his early years roaming the woods around his home, and thus began his lifelong interest in nature. He began his formal education at the age of nine, at a school established on the family property specifically for the education of the Jefferson children. Thomas pursued his studies avidly, studying Greek, Latin, and French. He also studied music and learned to play violin.
Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. President
Abraham Lincoln was born on February 11, 1809 in a log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky. When Abraham was eight years old, the family moved to Perry County, Indiana. It was a hard life. They slept on the dirt floor on insect-infested corn husk beds that were often visit by rodents.
Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas Lincoln, was uneducated, but his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, was a believer in education. When a school opened in a nearby town, she insisted that Abraham and his older sister, Sarah, be allowed to attend. They had to walk about nine miles each way. Abraham Lincoln’s mother died when he was nine-years old.
When Abraham’s mother died, Thomas couldn’t cope with juggling the need to farm and to hunt for food and the care of the children. He left Abraham and his 11-year old sister, Sarah, alone on the farm for several months while he went to Kentucky to find a new wife. Neighbors reported that the children were skinny and filthy.
When Thomas returned with his new wife, Sarah Bush Johnston, and her three children, Abraham rushed to her and buried his face in her skirts. They became quite fond of each other. Abraham called her “Mother.”
Sarah was a loving person and she supported Abraham’s interest in education. Although she could not read herself, she knew of Abraham’s interest in reading from Thomas, and she brought six books with her from Kentucky. When a school opened about a mile away, Abraham was allowed to attend, but unfortunately the school lasted only three months. The family had little money for paper, pencils or books, but Sarah did all she could to help Abraham learn to read and write. Sometimes Abraham used a bit of charcoal to write on a piece of wood.
Abraham Lincoln attended school intermittently, for only a few months at a time. He was mostly self-educated. He was avid reader and borrowed books whenever he could. He was often called lazy because he would rather read than do chores on the farm.
Abraham did not have a good relationship with his father who often beat him. His father often rented him out to perform manual labor tasks such as shucking corn, hoeing, gathering, and plowing. All the money he earned went to his father.
It is reported that Abraham was the shyest, most reticent, most uncouth, most awkward, most badly dressed and homeliest of any of the boys in the region, but he was strong and tall. His skill with an axe was well-known--he could chop more wood and split more rails than anyone around. Abe could outrun and outwrestle all of the other boys.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd U.S. President
Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, in Hudson Valley town of Hyde Park, New York. His father, businessman James Roosevelt, and his mother Sara Ann Delano, came from the most prominent families in New York State. At the time of his birth his mother was 27 and his father was 54, with an adult child by his first wife. Franklin’s mother was a strong-willed woman who doted on her only child and was a strong influence on him throughout his life.
Franklin grew up privileged. He made his first trip to Europe at the age of two, and went again every year between the ages of seven and fifteen which helped him to learn to speak German and French.
Franklin enjoyed many sporting activities. He learned to ride, shoot, row, and play polo and lawn tennis. As a teenager, Franklin took up golf. He also learned to sail, receiving a sailboat from his father at the age of sixteen.
Franklin was educated by private tutors during his youth. At the age of fourteen, Franklin was enrolled in the elite Groton school, an Episcopal boarding school in Massachusetts. The headmaster described Franklin as “a quiet, satisfactory boy of more than ordinary intelligence, taking a good position in his form but not brilliant."
Groton may have catered to the privileged class, but the students lived a Spartan life. Franklin lived in a small cubicle with a standard-issue bed, dresser, and chair. The boys had to get up at 6:45 each morning and take a cold shower in a communal washroom. They then had a full day of classes, athletics, and chapel.
Franklin struggled to fit in at Groton. Like many only children he had not learned how to interact with boys his own age; he was mature for his age and more interested in solitary pursuits. Athletics were important at Groton and Franklin was not a very good athlete.
Only children are often good at charming adults. Franklin put this skill to good use when he and a tutor went on a cycling tour of Germany when Franklin was 14. They were arrested several times for minor traffic violations, but Franklin talked his way out of a ticket each time.
Endicott Peabody, an Episcopal minister and headmaster of Groton, aimed to instill moral teachings and philanthropic impulses in his students. Franklin learned from Peabody, as he had learned from his father, the importance of helping the less fortunate.
Ronald Reagan, 40th U.S. President
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois. His father was John Edward "Jack" Reagan. His mother was Nellie Wilson Reagan. He had a brother, Neil, who was three years older.
Ronald’s father nicknamed him "Dutch," because he thought the infant looked like "a fat little Dutchman." Ronald used the name, Dutch, throughout his childhood because he disliked his given name, Ronald.
Ronald’s family moved frequently during his early childhood, finally settling in Dixon, Illinois, in 1920, where Jack Reagan opened a shoe store. Nellie worked as a seamstress and a sales clerk for a time. The Reagan family was a poor family, barely able to make ends meet much of the time. The family also experienced difficulties because of Jack’s alcoholism.
Because of the frequent moves, Ronald didn't make many, if any, lasting friendships as a young boy. He was an introverted child who enjoyed playing quietly by himself with his tin soldiers and reading books on natural history.
In Dixon, Ronald began to make friends. He spent many days tromping through the woods surrounding the town, swimming and fishing in the Rock River, and trapping muskrats. He had fun with his friends, but he also seemed to get into a lot of fistfights with other boys.
He also managed to get into mischief. For instance, when Ronald was eleven years old, he launched a small illegal rocket into the side of the Dixon Bridge. The police hauled him off to the local police station and is family had to pay an expensive fine. Another time, he narrowly escaped death while playing under a train that suddenly began moving.
Ronald’s mother and father did not have much formal education, but encouraged their sons to work hard in school and make something better of themselves. Despite his parents’ encouragement to do well in school, Ronald focused more on sports than learning while in high school. Ronald particularly loved football, and although he wasn’t the greatest player, he was respected for his spirit and work ethic.
Ronald also began acting in his teens in several church and school plays. By the end of his high school years, Ronald had become one of the most popular and well-liked boys in his school. In his senior year, he was elected president of the student body.
Barack Obama, 44th U.S. President
Barack Obama was born on August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii. His mother Stanley Ann Dunham Obama (known as Ann Dunham) was from Kansas and his father, Barack Obama, Sr., was from Kenya. Barack’s parents met at the University of Hawaii where they were students. Barack's parents went their separate ways shortly after his birth, with Ann taking Barack with her when she went to Seattle to pursue her education. Barack’s parents were divorced in 1965. Barack had very little contact with his father throughout his life.
Ann Dunham returned to Honolulu to continue her studies and met Lolo Suetoro, a student from Indonesia, whom she married in 1965. Barack attended kindergarten in Hawaii, but then moved to Indonesia with his mother and stepfather.
At the age of 10, Obama moved back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents who had relocated to Honolulu in 1960. Later his mother also returned to Hawaii, with Barack’s half-sister Maya. From sixth through eight grade Barack lived with his mother and sister. In 1975, Ann and Maya returned to Indonesia, but Barack chose to stay in Hawaii and live with his grandparents.
Obama experienced difficulties as a child due to his multi-racial heritage. He used alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine during his teen-aged years as he struggled with issues of identity. As a younger child, the fact that his father “was black as pitch” and his mother was “white as milk” didn’t even register. In high school, he realized that he was one of only three black students at the school, and he began to encounter racism.
Despite his difficulties, Barack was a respected and well-liked student in his school. He excelled at basketball and was a forward on the school’s team. He was in the Choir Club and became one of the editors of the school magazine. During his high school years, the young Obama became an avid surfer, a fan of jazz, and enjoyed fishing. He graduated from the prestigious private high-school, Punahou Academy, with academic honors. .
Looking back on his childhood, Barack said about his time in Honolulu: "The opportunity that Hawaii offered—to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect—became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear.”
Six Presidents: What Did They Have in Ccommon?
Six presidents—some came from wealthy families and some grew up poor. What did they have in common?
Five of the six, had fathers who died when they were young or fathers who were not present for them. (Reagan’s father did not die or leave the family, but he was an alcoholic and Lincoln’s father was abusive.) Did the absence of a father force them to take on leadership roles at a young age?
Often the presidents has strong loving mothers. (In Obama's case, a grandmother Did this help them to believe in themselves?
All had to overcome hardships of one sort of another. Often they did not “fit in.” Did this help them hone their social skills and ambitions?
Give your opinion in this poll.
Which of these life circumstances do you think most contributed to the success of these six presidents.
Learn More about the Presidents
This is the first article in a series of two articles about the life of some prominent presidents before they were president. The second article is:
© 2014 Catherine Giordano