John F. Kennedy’s Childhood and Education

John F. Kennedy, or Jack as his family called him, was born on May 29, 1917. He had an older brother, Joe Kennedy Jr. and seven younger siblings. He spent the first decade of his life in Brookline, Massachusetts. JFK’s father Joseph Kennedy Sr. didn’t play an active role in young Jack’s life since he was often away on business. His mother, Rose Kennedy, did have help with the children though. She needed it since Jack was often ill. The family joked that if a mosquito bit Jack, it would be sorry because it would catch whatever illness he had at the time.

Eventually the Kennedys moved to Bronxville, New York. Thanks to his father’s successful business ventures, the family could afford several different homes. They spent summers in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Easter and Christmas holidays took place at their home in Palm Beach, Florida.

jfk youth

Kennedy family at Hyannis Port Sept. 4, 1931. JFK at left in white shirt, Joe Jr. far right

Jack and his older brother were extremely competitive. Joe Sr. encouraged this quality in his sons. He often said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Unfortunately for Jack, his brother was both two years older and stronger, so if they fought Jack got beat up. Jack couldn’t best Joe as a student, either. Joe had ambition. Since childhood Joe said that he wanted to become the first Catholic President of the United States. While Joe worked hard in all his subjects, Jack tended to pay attention only to the ones that interested him, such as English.

When he enrolled at Choate boarding school in ninth grade, Jack found other ways of distinguishing himself from Joe. While Joe was the better student and an accomplished athlete, Jack became the class clown. He formed a group at Choate called the Muckers, which was responsible for many school pranks. Most memorably, they exploded a toilet seat with a firecracker. Jack was nearly expelled for that incident. Instead, poor health interfered with his studies. He was diagnosed with colitis. It made him tired and he also lost his appetite. He got well enough to graduate in the middle of his class. Despite his mediocre performance as a student, his classmates voted him most likely to succeed.

Jack’s colitis interfered again when he entered Princeton and had to quit after six weeks. In 1936, he enrolled at Harvard. While there, he produced a campus newspaper called the “Freshman Smoker” and got a spot on the varsity swim team. He wanted to play football, too, but he ruptured a disk in his spine. From then on JFK always lived with back pain.

In 1938, Joe Sr. served as President Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Great Britain. Both Jack and Joe Jr. went to Great Britain to work with their father. To prepare for his senior thesis, Jack traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the Soviet Union. He returned to London on September 1, 1939—the same day that World War II began. Jack’s thesis pointed out that Great Britain was unprepared for war because it had neglected its military. Published as Why England Slept, his work became a bestseller. He used the money he made from the book to buy a Buick convertible, but he also gave the royalties he made from Great Britain to charity.

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Lt. John F. Kennedy, 1942

After graduation, Jack joined his brother in the U.S. Navy. Joe was a flyer and Jack was a Lieutenant assigned to the South Pacific. Only Jack came home. Joe Jr. died when his plane blew up during a mission in Europe.

Joe’s death changed everything for JFK. With his oldest son gone, Jack’s father encouraged him to abandon his interests in writing and teaching to run for Congress. JFK won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1946. His political career had begun.

Tippecanoe and Tyler, too: U.S. Presidents William Henry Harrison and John Tyler

William Henry Harrison

In the 1840 election William Henry Harrison’s Whig party supporters got some extra help from a Democratic newspaper. The paper claimed that if he got his pension and a barrel of cider, Harrison would retire to a log cabin in Ohio. As a result people thought of Harrison as a common man, despite the fact that he was the son of a wealthy Virginian who signed the Declaration of Independence. Supporters nicknamed Harrison “Tippecanoe” after a battle he had fought against a confederation of Native Americans. “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” made a catchy campaign slogan.

Official White House Portrait of William Henry Harrison

Official White House Portrait of William Henry Harrison

The election also gave birth to the American expression “O.K.” Democrats used O.K. as affectionate shorthand for Harrison’s opponent, Martin Van Buren, who was known as “Old Kinderhook” after the town in New York where he grew up.

Harrison was the first Whig party candidate to win a presidential election. The Whig party had formed out of opposition to President Jackson’s policies. Whigs wanted a strong federal government and social reforms.

Harrison was mainly nominated and elected because he had few political enemies and didn’t share his personal opinions. No one knows what kind of president he would have been because he died from pneumonia one month after his inauguration. He was the first president, though not the last, to die in office.

John Tyler

Tyler’s succeeding Harrison established the precedent of the vice-president taking over for a deceased president. Yet, since the Constitution didn’t specifically state what the vice-president’s role was in case a president died, not everyone thought Tyler should become president. John Quincy Adams referred to Tyler as “His Accidency.”

Official White House Portrait of John Tyler

Official White House Portrait of John Tyler

Shortly after taking the oath of office, Tyler’s wife died, which made him the first president to become a widower in office. Tyler soon married Julia Gardiner, a young woman thirty years younger than he.

In many ways, Tyler seemed like a natural fit for the presidency. At fifty-one he already had political experience serving as a governor and a congressman. His tall, thin frame made him stand out in a crowd, and he had an excellent speaking voice.

Tyler was a former Democrat who had switched over to the Whig party during Jackson’s presidency. Yet he still felt strongly about states’ rights. This feeling got him into trouble with his party, which favored a strong federal government. He vetoed bills that Whigs in Congress and in his cabinet wanted.

After vetoing a tariff bill introduced by Whigs, the first ever impeachment resolution of a president was made against Tyler. The resolution failed. Nevertheless, Tyler remained a mainly ineffectual executive.

Though he supported the annexation of Texas, the Senate would not approve it until Tyler’s successor James Polk was elected so that Tyler’s administration could not take credit. Tyler stated, “A Vice President, who succeeds to the Presidency by the demise of the President…has no party at his heels to sustain his measures.”

Andrew Jackson’s Apprentice: U.S. President Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren was the first president born in the official United States of America. His ancestors were Dutch. Van Buren’s father managed a tavern in Kinderhook, New York. Politicians often dropped by for a drink and talked about their ideas. Listening to them gave young Martin an early interest in politics. His family couldn’t afford to send him to law school, but he studied on his own while he worked as law office clerk. Soon he entered state politics.

Van Buren got his nickname “The Little Magician” for his talents as a shrewd negotiator and political organizer. By the election of 1836 Van Buren had already helped to organize the new Democratic Party. His former party, the Democratic-Republicans, was crammed with members who just wanted to argue with each other. The new Democratic platform extended Andrew Jackson’s policies of limited federal government and promotion of states rights.

Official White House Portrait of Martin Van Buren

Official White House Portrait of Martin Van Buren

Though Van Buren was a gifted politician, he is largely regarded as a failure as president.

The economic crisis he inherited from Jackson only got worse under his watch. Not all of the factors were within his control: for example, England also had an economic depression and English banks stopped dealing with the United States. Unemployment among American workers soared and so did poverty.

Unlike future democratic president Franklin Roosevelt, Van Buren never offered the American people federal assistance. He thought the government should leave people alone. He did, however, want to make sure that the government had money. He proposed an independent treasury so the government wouldn’t have to keep its money in struggling individual banks.

The establishment of the U.S. Treasury would have been a victory for Van Buren, but it took him years to convince Congress to pass the bill. By then the public blamed him for the economic crisis and Van Buren was not re-elected.

Surprising Facts about U.S. President John Quincy Adams

Though he was the first son of a former president to be elected, John Quincy Adams’ presidency was undermined before he even got into office.

The 1824 election was crowded with four Republican candidates: Andrew Jackson, Adams, Henry Clay, and William Crawford. Jackson and Adams received the most votes but neither won outright, so the election results were decided in the House of Representatives where Clay was Speaker of the House. Clay threw his support behind Adams. Afterwards, Adams named Clay as his secretary of state. Jackson supporters claimed without proof that Adams had bribed Clay and did their best to discredit Adams.

John Quincy Adams Official White House Portrait

John Quincy Adams Official White House Portrait

Adams had also inherited his father John Adams’ stubborn refusal to negotiate. His first annual message to Congress contained some good ideas, such as promotion of internal improvements and the creation of a national university. His insistence on broad federal powers and his assertion that government officials did not need to consider the opinions of their constituents made him very unpopular, however. As a result, Congress ignored President Adams’ domestic and foreign policies.

After being voted out of office and replaced by Andrew Jackson, Adams did not retire. Instead, he served as a member of the House of Representatives for 17 years. He was the only president to serve in the House after being president. His family objected to him serving in a lower office, but his election pleased him.

Nicknamed “Old Man Eloquent” for his speeches against slavery, Adams received more respect in the House than as president. He also accomplished more. For example, he helped repeal the gag rule that prevented the House from debating any criticisms of slavery.

Two Gentlemen from Virginia: Surprising Facts about US Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison

Thomas Jefferson

The third President of the United States had a personality that was similar to George Washington’s in many ways. Like Washington, Jefferson was fond of dancing at parties and tended to be shy. Instead of addressing Congress in person, Jefferson sent his messages in writing. This tactic showed off his writing skills and helped him avoid his fear of public speaking. Known as an intellectual for his scientific and architectural pursuits, he thought he was also a good violin player, though some people who heard him play thought otherwise!

Official Presidential Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, 1800

Official Presidential Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, 1800

Official dinners were conducted in a manner different from the presidents who preceded him. He insisted on dressing simply to the point that one guest thought he was a servant. The dinners were served on a circular table so that no guest would feel superior or inferior to another. Jefferson did not eliminate all luxury in the executive mansion, however. Fancy French food was served regularly during his presidency.

As many people know, he sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore “Louisiana country” west of the Mississippi River. Jefferson and Lewis had been neighbors in Virginia, so Jefferson already knew how seriously Lewis would take the job. With Lewis and Clark’s help Jefferson purchased the Louisiana territory. While Jefferson added land to the United States, he also scaled back on some government departments. In a move that would delight many people today, he temporarily got rid of the Internal Revenue Service.

James Madison

Like his close friend Jefferson, James Madison also tended to be shy in public. Madison had the additional disadvantage of being the shortest president in history (he was 5’4″). He was also one of the skinniest, which led some people to believe he was always at death’s door.

His personal qualities may not have made him noticeable to others, but his wife Dolley made up for Madison’s awkwardness. The outgoing Dolley was Thomas Jefferson’s hostess while the widower was president. This gave her opportunities to mingle with members of Congress who would decide whether or not to elect Madison when he ran for president. When Madison was elected, he and Dolley held the first inaugural ball at a hotel on Capital Hill.

Portrait of James Madison, 1815

Portrait of James Madison, 1815

In many ways Madison served as Jefferson’s junior partner. He kept Jefferson informed of political matters in the states while Jefferson served as minster to France by writing coded letters to his mentor. Madison told Jefferson, “I shall always receive your commands with pleasure.” Yet Madison had his own opinions. While Jefferson was away, Madison helped draft the U.S. Constitution. His belief in a strong central government ran in opposition to Jefferson’s preference for individual rights. Madison did, however, have a flexible personality, which allowed him to see both sides of an issue. Just as he helped write the Constitution, Madison helped create the Bill of Rights that supported Jefferson’s individualistic views.

Benjamin Franklin and Slavery

Throughout his life, Benjamin Franklin had a tendency to change his mind on political issues. For example, he initially supported the Stamp Act and only later decided that the American colonies should separate from Britain. Yet often Franklin ended up on the winning side of an argument, even if the argument was not settled in his lifetime.

Like his opinion of the American Revolution, Franklin’s views on slavery changed, too. He owned a couple of slaves at various times of his life and published ads for slave auctions when he worked as a printer. Still, he and his wife Deborah made sure that their slaves received an education from a Philadelphia school for black students. Most slave owners didn’t think slaves could learn, but after Franklin visited the school he commented that he had “higher opinions of the natural capacities of the black race.” He also published a few articles arguing against slavery. Until 1787, however, Franklin never gave the abolition of slavery his complete support.

By 1787, the year of the Constitutional Convention, Franklin became president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. During the convention, he sought to include a statement about the freeing of slaves in the U.S. Constitution. Like many of the Founding Fathers, however, Franklin feared that the union between northern and southern states would not be created if he argued too forcefully for the end of slavery.

Franklin’s silence on the abolition of slavery lasted only until the Constitution was ratified and the new federal government was in place. In 1790, he submitted a petition on the society’s behalf to the U.S. Congress. Franklin declared that slavery contradicted the principles of the American Revolution, particularly the ideas that all men were created equal and that they were entitled to liberty. The petition stated that Congress had an obligation to ensure “the blessings of liberty to the people of the United States without distinction of color.”

The anti-slavery petition set off a heated debate in Congress. It angered pro-slavery advocates like Congressman James Jackson of Georgia. He stated that the Bible supported slavery and that slaves were needed to do the work on the South’s plantations. Though in poor health, Franklin didn’t miss the opportunity to mock Jackson’s speech in print. He compared it to a speech supposedly given one hundred years earlier by an Algerian pirate who had Christian slaves. The pirate argued that it was “in the interest of the state to continue the practice; therefore let the petition be rejected.” He also said that his religion permitted the enslavement of Christians, and that they were better off living as slaves than as free men in Europe “where they would only cut each other’s throats in religious wars.”

Like Franklin’s fictional Algerian pirate, Congress rejected the petition to end slavery. After the debate ended, George Washington wrote to a friend, “the slave business has at last [been] put to rest and will scarce awake.” The contradiction of slavery and the promises of liberty for all Americans awoke again in the nineteenth century, resulting in the Civil War. Once again, Franklin had picked the point of view that eventually prevailed.