Three Rags-to-Riches American Presidents who Grew Up Poor


WASHINGTON, D.C. — Massachusetts- Perceptions of disconnect between politicians and the general populace frequent contemporary American sentiment. Growing economic disparity hurts our education system and career choices, resulting in a severely restricted number of citizens with the opportunity and qualifications to make it to the top.

This has left the country questioning its ability to relate to and best represent the “common man.”

However, this is not to say that every great leader of the United States has been the product of unrealistic affluence. Throughout political history, a handful of presidents have emerged from a background of poverty. The stories of these rags-to-riches American presidents are proof that greatness does not require the luck of a wealthy upbringing after all.

Abraham Lincoln (1861-65)

“Honest Abe” is not a misnomer for this famous president, whose childhood home was indeed of honest means. After moving westward as a toddler, Lincoln’s family built its homestead farm in southern Illinois. There, he received an informal education in woodcutting and crop planting, as was typical for frontier life.

His financial situation went from bad to worse in his early 20’s, when he purchased a general store, which later went bankrupt after the death of his business partner. Lincoln was left with thousands of dollars in debt and the loss of almost all his assets. His misfortune turned out to be a good thing, though, because it was out of desperation that he began studying law.

James A. Garfield (1881)

The log cabin in rural Ohio where this former president was born was a far stretch from the political glamour of Washington, where he would eventually move. The youngest of five and fatherless by the age of 2, Garfield certainly did not have the luxury of leisure time and money to aid his early success. Instead, he turned to physical labor; he worked as a carpenter, janitor and a barge driver to afford his education at Williams College.

Even as a lawyer, he and his family struggled, as he was drawn to low paying, charity cases of public service. Although he lived in the White House at the time, he died close to penniless.

Harry S. Truman (1945-53)

Though popular, Truman was so poor during his presidency that he was one of the first to earn a pension while in office, albeit a meager $25,000. The poverty of his early life turned disastrous when a men’s clothing store he owned with a friend went bankrupt due to sudden deflation.

This, together with a failed investment in zinc mining, kept him in financial ruin and steep debt for the entirety of his adult life.

Even during his political career, he often worked menial jobs on the side to keep his family afloat. After moving out of the White House at the end of his term, he and his wife, Bess, actually had to hunker down with his mother-in-law because they could not buy a place of their own. The couple would later become the first official recipients of Medicare. Still, Truman is praised for stabilizing and growing the economy in the years after World War II.

Lincoln, Garfield, and Truman are historical testaments to the ability to overcome poverty. They prove that the American political system is not solely the property of society’s elite, nor should it be. Their exemplary experiences and self-made success has only benefited their nation.

Stefanie Doucette

Sources: Huffington Post, The History Channel, University of Virginia Miller Center
Photo: Flickr


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