“Why (and How) Study the Presidents’ Early Lives?” by Hendrik Booraem V
Hendrik Booraem V is a social and political historian who has made studying the early lives of American presidents a lifelong specialty. Among the presidents he has written books about are Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, James A. Garfield, and Calvin Coolidge. His latest presidential biography is called Young Jerry Ford: Athlete and Citizen.
This is the first of three EerdWord posts commemorating the 100th anniversary of Gerald Ford’s birth, which will take place this Sunday, July 14.
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When I was a young undergraduate at the University of Virginia, surrounded by statues, buildings, and mementos of Thomas Jefferson, I became interested in the personalities of the different American presidents. But as I thought more about them, I came to wonder whether the political world may have exerted such pressure for falsity that it somehow distorted their actual personalities.
“What were the presidents like before they became politicians?” I wondered. That is a question I have worked on throughout my entire career.
It’s a tricky question — maybe an impossible one — to answer. There have been only 43 presidents, after all, all male, but otherwise very different from one another. Some of them spent most of their lives in careers other than politics: Taylor was a general, Reagan an actor. Some of them grew up in political families expecting to become politicians themselves: Tyler was his father’s secretary; Lyndon Johnson went with his father on political campaigns; John Quincy Adams was encouraged by his mother to serve the nation. But all of them shared one experience: that of growing up, getting an education, and taking an adult role. So this was the part of their lives I chose to focus on in my work.
I was not the only person to think about this question. A political scientist named James David Barber, shortly after I began studying the presidents, came out with a book called The Presidential Character, in which he carefully traced all the modern presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Richard Nixon, looking at their teenage and early adult years to see how they developed their goals and their political style. Barber’s interest differed from mine in one way: he was primarily interested in understanding presidential character in order to predict how a new president would behave in office. He was a political scientist, after all.
Barber’s book fascinated me, but I couldn’t subscribe to his theory. There are many factors that influence the course of a presidency. Character is a big one, but not big enough to determine how a person performs in office. Moreover, Barber was naturally interested in the most consequential presidents, those who affected the history of the country. I felt that anyone who reached the highest office in the country, no matter how and no matter for how long, must have an interesting personality and a story worth telling.
This is because, as I came to realize, a personality is the product of a story. A president is the way he is (and please understand “she” here and elsewhere without my having to add it) because of the experience he has had. That includes family life, formal education, friendships, religious experiences, travel, and first jobs. Barber’s formulation was basically right: a president develops goals from his family and education, a style from his friends and early job experience, and a set of core values from friends, family, religion, and other formative influences.
I wanted, then, to tell the stories of the whole list — 33 of them then, 43 now — in as interesting and dramatic a way as possible, beginning around puberty and ending before their political careers began. For a while I set the traditional age of legal adulthood, 21, as my upper limit, but I’ve become convinced that for my purposes the best cutoff is the first full-time job, political or non-political, after age 21. That means that a few presidents who spent years in graduate school, like Wilson and Clinton, may have had sort of a prolonged adolescence. That may be right.
Finally, in order to fully understand these men, I felt it was important to examine the details of the worlds in which they grew up. A person with no formal schooling, like Lincoln or Jackson, was constantly learning from a variety of experiences that were extremely different from ours — piloting a flatboat across the Ohio and down the Mississippi; fighting a guerrilla war, with muskets, on horseback; surviving a case of smallpox. The texture of these experiences — the sights, the smells, the skills — needed to be recreated closely in my books to capture a reader’s attention and help him estimate the actual effect of the experience.
Over the years, this part of telling the story of the young presidents has brought richness and satisfaction to my work. In studying Garfield, I had to learn how a canal boat worked and what the various jobs of the crew involved. The tale of Coolidge’s college years required that I learn about the hair-raising, violent contests between college freshmen and sophomores in the 1890s. Andrew Jackson’s first visit to Charleston, South Carolina, in the years just after the Revolution (which I believe changed the course of his life) had to be evoked with the heat, the mosquitoes, the slaves, the smells of the ocean, and the incredible luxury of the slave owners.
In exploring and understanding Gerald Ford’s formative years — as I try to do in my latest presidential biography, Young Jerry Ford — it helps, for instance, to know that the football fields where he played were not characterized by the carefully tended grass we expect to see varsity teams play on today, but that they were sometimes bare, sometimes gravelly, sometimes sloping, or even underwater in rainy weather. It helps to know that the ball he played with was fat and hard to hold, and that high-school uniforms were frequently old and sometimes ragged.
These little details help readers understand that the sport Ford played in high school and later at the University of Michigan was not the giant spectator sport we know, but an Americanized English schoolboys’ game still considered merely a sidelight to formal education. When they know, too, that there were no showers in Ford’s house, no radio or heater in his car, no refrigerator in his kitchen, they may find themselves better prepared to understand that middle-class Midwestern Americans in the 1920s — the young Jerry Fords of the world — were people somewhat different from us in the experiences that shaped them, the views they clung to, and even, perhaps, the values that guided them.
Click to order Hendrik Booraem V’s Young Jerry Ford: Athlete and Citizen.