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American History & Jewish History Blog
James A. Garfield, Wikimedia Commons
April 5, 2021

Rags to Riches Presidents & The Poorest Presidents In US History

America is known as the land of opportunity. The rags-to-riches narrative is best exemplified in America’s very top position, the presidency. Anyone born in the U.S., no matter his or her station in life, can be selected by the people to sit at the apex of power not only of the country, but essentially, of the world. The most famous example of the so-called “log-cabin” presidents is Abraham Lincoln, who grew up, in the face of poverty and with a lack of education, to become one of the most beloved presidents in American history. Two additional figures, whose combination of resilience and relatable occupations prior to becoming president, deserve mention: James Garfield and Harry Truman.

“To some men, the fact they came up from poverty is a matter of pride. I lament it sorely.” -James Garfield

The Last President Born In A Log Cabin & The Poorest President In US History

James Garfield was the last of the log cabin presidents, and he was actually the poorest man to ever become president. Born in 1831 on a Northeast Ohio farm, Garfield lost his father when he was eighteen months old. He tried his hand at all sorts of jobs in order to support his family. He worked on a canal boat, as a janitor, a carpenter, a professor, and even as the president of the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute Hiram College (now known as Hiram College). His dislike of faculty politics drove Garfield to pursue a career in law and he passed the bar in 1861, two years after becoming the youngest member of the Ohio State Senate at 28. In August of that year, Garfield entered the Union army as a colonel of the 42nd Ohio Infantry, where he was tasked with filling its ranks. He did so successfully, finding many men from Hiram College who were willing to follow their former teacher into battle. Garfield earned distinction on the battlefield and ended the war as a Major-General. In 1863, Garfield resigned his army commission to take his place as a congressman in the House of Representatives. It was a position he never campaigned for, but that his constituents felt he deserved based on his record as a radical abolitionist and a war hero. In Congress, his drive, affability, and gift for orating meant that his popularity amongst Republicans skyrocketed, and he was eventually appointed the minority leader. 

At the 1880 Republican National Convention, Garfield addresses the convention members twice, the second time to promote his friend John Sherman for the presidential nomination. Garfield had just been elected to the U.S. Senate by the Ohio Legislature with Sherman’s support, so what happened next was truly shocking to Garfield. The delegates were so taken by Garfield’s earlier speech at the Convention, that they determined he was the only candidate who could garner enough votes across the party. Much to his own astonishment, Garfield found himself on the Republican ticket, and shortly thereafter, the nation’s twentieth president. Sadly, Garfield was shot only four months into his presidency, and died two months later. 

The Last President To Not Attend College & Truman’s Childhood Home

Another farmer who became president of the United States was Harry Truman. Truman is the only 20th-century president who never earned a college degree. Born in 1884 on a Missouri farm, Truman never knew a life of opulence. Even as president, Truman spent the vast majority of his term at Blair House, as the dilapidated White House was being restored. 

Just as the Truman family farm had its ups and downs, Harry’s businesses and investments all floundered, yet he was diligent and didn’t give up. Like Garfield, Truman worked all kinds of jobs to make ends meet: he was a drugstore clerk, a railway timekeeper, and a bank clerk, before becoming a county judge and entering politics. And just like Garfield, Truman’s political career took a dramatic turn at a national convention. The 1944 Democratic National Convention began without President Roosevelt having chosen his running mate. Henry A. Wallace, the incumbent vice president, seemed like the logical choice, and most journalists reported that most of the delegates supported  Wallace. Truman did not seek the nomination and was a fairly obscure Missouri senator who could not have predicted his selection as running mate for Roosevelt’s fourth term. And yet, after much backroom wrangling, Roosevelt selected Truman to be his running mate. To be fair, it was more that Roosevelt chose to not have Wallace or the other men put forth as options. Two months later, Roosevelt was dead, and Truman found himself president during the largest war in human history, World War II.

After his presidency, Truman returned to Missouri and was scraping by on his veteran’s pension  (he had served in World War I). Largely because of his financial straits, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act in 1958, which awarded lifetime pensions to former presidents. Neither Garfield nor Truman sought the presidency outright, and yet they were both catapulted to it from their modest origins. Both men were also prodigious readers who saw books as a diversion from their current station, and as a means to educate and elevate themselves. In Truman’s case, he also felt it enabled him to rise to the challenges he faced when becoming president.

Read more about presidents and other political figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Has The US Ever Had A Woman President, Jerry Parr, The First Vaccine, and more!

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