Harry Truman Refers to Himself as an "Old Man Who - By Accident Became President of the United States"

December 20, 1962

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Harry Truman Refers to Himself as an "Old Man Who - By Accident Became President of the United States"
Autograph Letter Signed
2 pages | SMC 695

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      Harry Truman sprang from humble beginnings. He was born on a Missouri farm in 1884, and his family never had much money. Truman worked a variety of low-paying jobs, including bookkeeper, farmer, and haberdasher, prior to serving as an artillery officer in WWI. He briefly attended a business college, but left after one semester. Just like a few of his favorite presidents – George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln – Truman never earned a college degree. He developed a down-to-earth demeanor and a reputation for being plain-spoken and modest.

      Truman’s humility is on full display in this letter to Dean Acheson. He elevates others, but not himself. He compliments Acheson for his “brains and ability,” and praises the two men who loyally served him as Secretary of State, Acheson and General George Marshall (famously known for the Marshall Plan in Europe) for being “my greatest assets” as president. Truman wonders, “How in the world could a man be as lucky as I was - with two such able men!” He also refers to his time in the White House as mere happenstance: “No one knows better than an old man who - by accident became President of the United States” after the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April of 1945. However, he had no need to refer to his presidency as an “accident.” Back in 1841, John Tyler first established the precedent, whereby the vice president acceded to the presidency upon the death of William Henry Harrison, who died after only 30 days in office. Tyler was then dubbed “His Accidency” by his detractors. Unlike Tyler, however, Truman was chosen to serve again, winning the 1948 election by his own merit. 

      Although he was allowed by law to seek reelection for a full second term, Truman declined to run again in 1952. Truman struggled to make ends meet after his time in Washington. U.S. presidents did not receive a pension at that time, and Truman claimed to have spent roughly $30,000 a year to respond to mail and requests for speeches. He turned down lucrative business proposals because he believed accepting such easy money would degrade the office of the presidency. In a 1957 letter to House Speaker Sam Rayburn, Truman confided that without a federal pension he would be forced to “go ahead with some contracts to keep ahead of the hounds.” Truman acknowledged that his income was based on the sale of his father’s farm and the proceeds from his memoirs, which were released in two volumes in 1955 and 1956. In 1958, Truman became the first former president to do a television interview for “a substantial fee” when he appeared on Edward R. Murrow’s, “See it Now.” 

      Truman’s difficult financial situation spurred Congress to pass the Former Presidents Act in 1958. The Act provided past U.S. presidents with an annual $25,000 taxable pension, free mailing privileges, and funds for an office staff and office space, “appropriately furnished and equipped.” 

      In this letter, Truman denounces the big ticket Democratic dinner being pushed by the Kennedy White House. Given his humble beginnings and financial struggles after he left office, it is easy to understand his critique of the Democratic Party. For Harry Truman – much more than for John Kennedy - $1,000 was a lot of money! He closes with a simple statement that underlines his straightforward modesty: “To hell with these multimillionaires at the head of things. Maybe I'm just a poor retired farmer.”

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      Dec [text is crossed out] 20, 1962

      Dear Dean;-

      If you are punished for your sins by association with Christian Herter - I am of the opinion that you are not punished!  He needs your brains and ability.  No one knows that better than an old man who - by accident became President of the United States. 

      You were one of my greatest assets.  Marshall was the other..  How in the world could a man be as lucky as I was - with two such able men! 

      I don't know what to do about Jan 14th.  I am told that the Darn Democrats at Kennedy's suggestion are putting on a $1000oo dinner!  If as and when that

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      happens we'll quit being democrats, with a little d!

      I was not consulted about the "thousand dollar dinner."  If I had been, I'd have told them that Democratic dinners should start at $25oo.  A thousand seats at $25oo would be $25,000oo, two thousand seats at $10oo would be $20,000oo and [text is crossed out] 4000 [text is crossed out] seats at five dollars would still be $20,000oo  Therefore more real Democrats would take a hand!  That's the way Democrats have won.

      To hell with these multimillionaires at the head of things.  Maybe I'm just a poor retired farmer.