Before They Were Men

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“It’s hard to remember that they were men before they were legends, and children before they were men..” Bill Moyers, A Walk Through the Twentieth Century. 

For Presidents Day I’ve been putting together a lecture series for my local library. These talks surround the childhoods and later experiences, of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

The thinking behind each, was that early life for all four men presented serious challenges. Complications in health, painful family tragedies, and economic circumstances seemed to shape the world view of these future presidents. It was how each overcame these difficulties, and how that endurance came to influence their presidencies that is the focus of the series.

This is a brief synopsis of what I found.

Behind the image mythologized in “The Life of George Washington, by writer, “Parson” Weems, lived a reality of a more nuanced, and complex Virginia boy. Born on February 22, 1732 in Pope’s Creek, George Washington came into the world as the first son of a planter, but from a second marriage. His position in the family line left him without any claim to his father’s estate. In a strictly ordered society that followed the rules of primogeniture, only the eldest son inherited, and young Washington could claim nothing, aside from the Washington surname. His father, Augustine Washington had two sons from his first marriage, and Lawrence, the eldest, stood to inherit all.

Augustine in fact died in 1743, when George was only eleven years old,  the boy not only lost his father, but also learned he wouldn’t have the formal English education his older brothers had enjoyed. That particular shortcoming marked George permanently, leaving him self conscious and guarded through his early life.

So he pretended. Over time, with practice, Washington clothed his persona in dignified, and formal conduct. Carrying himself with decorum effected his natural behavior, and, in the the end defined his life.

The Revolutionary War that Washington valiantly won, also cost young Andrew Jackson his family. Born on the frontier, in a region paralleling North and South Carolina, young Andrew arrived into the world without his father. Jackson Sr had died prior to his birth, leaving Andrew’s mother, Elizabeth, and his two older brothers in poverty.

At thirteen Andrew, along with his brother Robert joined the Patriot ranks, were eventually caught, and imprisoned by the British. When a red-coated officer ordered young Andrew to polish his boots, the boy declined, protesting that he was a “prisoner of war, and demanded to be treated as such.” The officer replied by whipping his sword across Jackson’s insolent head and forearms, and a diehard Anglophobe was born. (In early 1815, Colonel Andrew Jackson meted out his revenge on the Brits at the Battle of New Orleans).

The end of the Revolution found young Andrew alone-the only survivor in his family. His brother Robert had succumbed to camp fever from imprisonment, followed by his mother three weeks later. For the rest of his long life, Andrew Jackson lashed out at life, perceiving any disagreement as a challenge to his authority. He governed with the desperate instincts of a survivor.

Of a mild, more genial temperament, Abraham Lincoln came to being in the wilds of Sinking Springs, near Hodgenville, Kentucky. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was a hard scrabbling farmer, while his loving mother Nancy Hanks, lived only until Abe reached the age of nine. Hard work and ever-present death seemed to permeate Lincoln’s young life, and as he grew Abraham grappled with bouts of melancholy.

Exhibiting a quick and curious mind, he struggled to learn on the frontier, finally grasping the rudiments of reading and spelling. But his father saw reading as not accomplishing any chores and young Lincoln had to find tricks to do both, such as clearing trees then reading the primer he kept handy.

His step-mother, Sarah Bush Johnston reported that Abe would cipher numbers on a board in char, then scrape away the equation with a knife to solve another.

By young adulthood Lincoln left his father’s farm, and relocated to central Illinois, and made a life in New Salem. Over time Lincoln grew remarkably self-educated, studied law and passed the Illinois bar in 1836.

Of all the resentments he felt toward his father, it was Thomas’s clear lack of ambition and self improvement that nettled the son the most. Upward mobility was America’s greatest gift, and young Lincoln pursued it with relish.

From his first gasping moments Theodore Roosevelt struggled merely to breathe. A child of rank, privilege and wealth, he suffered from debilitating, acute asthma.  His parents, Theodore Sr and Mitty Bullock Roosevelt, stood helplessly over his sick bed, fearing that their little boy wouldn’t survive childhood. Later TR recalled how his father would carry him from his bed, bundle him into an open carriage for a ride through the moist Manhattan darkness. Small for his age, and nearly blind, young Teedee as he was called, began an exercise regime in a gym, built by his father on the second floor of their palatial home on East 20th Street in New York. Over time, using a pommel horse, the rings, and a boxing speed bag to build up his little frame, Theodore Jr visibly grew.

As for his eyes, a hunting trip finally proved to his family that he just couldn’t see. With new glasses, a self made physique and a dogged determination, Theodore Roosevelt brought his indefatigable zest and energy into his presidency.

Today is Presidents Day, 2018, and there is great value in remembering those who have served in this experiment in democracy. All four of these presidents left a distinctive signature of governance, schooled by earlier experience. And all, even Andy Jackson, governed in the spirit of service, believing they could make a contribution to this boisterous, ever-evolving nation.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Also available on