Read Across America Day: It Was His Boyhood Reading, Truman Recalls, That Prepared Him for When His “Terrible Trial Came”

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | March 1, 2013

March 1, 2013
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It Was His Boyhood Reading, Truman Recalls, That Prepared Him for When His "Terrible Trial Came." Shapell Manuscript Collection.

When a small task force at the National Education Association came up with the idea of creating a day to celebrate reading in 1997, they hardly imagined how big Read Across America Day would become. Today, some 45 million people will participate in extolling the joys and virtues of lifelong literacy.  Harry Truman might well serve as poster boy for the idea that the habit of reading, started early, lasts long, and yields unexpected consequences – both for the reader, and all around him. Here are two letters that tell his tale…

No one has ever taken history, or algebra, or Latin, and not at some point asked, querulously, “when am I ever going to need to use this?”  The answer, according to Harry S. Truman, is when you are struck by lightning one day and wake up to find yourself president of the United States.

I had to study whether I wanted to or not.  Read the Old & New Testaments King James translation three times before I was fifteen, and all the histories of world leaders and heroes I could find.  Our public library in Independence had about three or four thousand volumes, including the encyclopedias! Believe it or not I read ‘em all – including the enclo’s. Maybe I was a damphool [damn fool] but it served me well when my terrible trial came.

Harry Truman was a farm boy with only a high school education, but by reading about world leaders, he prepared to be one.

But Truman’s prodigious reading was not just confined to boyhood; rather, the habit of  looking to books to expand his world lasted his entire life. A letter written when he was 76, in fact, attests to the importance of reading, and with its mention of Lincoln biographies, to Truman’s own growth…

I’ll be glad to accept the set of the “Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln” by John G. Nicolay and John Hay. They will be exceedingly useful here for what we are trying to do, which is a history of the Presidency… I have all the other Lincoln biographies but this one.

President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson
President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. U.S. Department of Energy.

The Trumans of Missouri hadn’t, historically, much use for Abe Lincoln. When President Truman told his aged mother that she would sleep in Lincoln’s bed when visiting the White House, she told him in no uncertain terms that she’d sleep on the floor instead. Truman, as a Southerner, said he came to appreciate Lincoln gradually, all on his own, by reading about him. In the fullness of time, he even identified with him, as having also risen, surprisingly, from obscurity to the pinnacle of power. For plain Harry Truman, plain Abraham Lincoln was the epitome of leadership: a decent, straightforward, and honest man, who was first and foremost himself. Which was why, perhaps, during his stand-off with General MacArthur, Truman sent to the Library of Congress for books about Lincoln’s firing of General McClellan. This letter, then, finds Truman eight years out of office, writing “a history of the presidency,” still reading about Lincol.

Truman, incidentally, rated Lincoln a great president – 4th on his list, after (Southerners) Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson.

HARRY S. TRUMAN. 1884-1972.  The 33rd President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed, 2 pages, octavo, on his personal letterhead, Independence, Missouri, December 18, 1962. To ex-Secretary of State Dean Acheson

Typed Letter Signed, 1 page, quarto, with autograph addendum, on his personal letterhead, Independence, Missouri, April 17, 1961. To Paul Nachtman.

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