Many Presidents — but Not Donald Trump — Had Surprisingly Tragic Childhoods
There have been 44 U.S. presidents so far. Donald Trump is No. 45, but because Grover Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms, he is counted twice. Each president’s background has been different, naturally, and some have been rough.
You might not equate a tragic childhood with someone who rose to the highest office in the country, but you’d be surprised. Many U.S. presidents had very tough roads to hoe on the way to the White House, though our current one definitely didn’t in comparison. Keep reading to find out which U.S. presidents overcame childhood disasters and ended up leading an entire country.
1. Gerald Ford
Following Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, Gerald Ford became the 38th president of the United States. He served until January 1977.
Ford’s biological father, Leslie Lynch King Sr., was an abusive alcoholic who his mother, Dorothy Gardner, left days after she gave birth to Ford. Ford saw his father only once during high school. In 1917, when he turned 2, his mother married Gerald Rudolph Ford and gave her son his name. Ford didn’t know his stepfather wasn’t his biological dad until he was 17. And Ford’s name wasn’t legally changed until Dec. 3, 1935, according to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum website.
Next: Reagan’s rough road
2. Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan, the 40th U.S. president, was born in 1911 to John and Nellie Reagan. The family moved often during Reagan’s childhood — making it difficult for him to make lasting friendships — and in 1920 finally settled in Illinois. Barely able to make ends meet, the family had another issue: John Reagan was an alcoholic. According to The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College website, Ronald Reagan was no stranger to dragging his father, who was passed out drunk, in from the front yard of wherever they were living.
Next: You won’t believe Obama’s past.
3. Barack Obama
Barack Obama was the 44th president of the United States. Born in Honolulu, his parents — Stanley Ann Dunham Obama and Barack Obama Sr. — split up shortly after Obama was born. He went to Seattle with his mother, and his parents’ divorce was finalized in 1965.
Obama spent little time with his father while he was growing up. Obama Sr. reportedly was an abusive alcoholic, according to Obama’s half-brother. He ultimately died in a car crash.
Obama also moved around a lot. When his mother moved to Indonesia to marry Lolo Suetoro in 1965, he went with her. But when he turned 10, he returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents. In addition to Obama’s father’s issues, he had difficulties when he was growing up due to his multi-racial heritage.
Next: Bill Clinton’s childhood was no picnic.
4. William Jefferson Clinton
The 42nd president of the United States, Bill Clinton served from 1993 to 2001. His father, William Jefferson Blythe, died in a car crash three months before his birth. Clinton’s mother, Virginia Cassidy Blythe, raised him but left him with his grandparents in Arkansas while she studied anesthesiology in New Orleans.
Clinton’s mother returned to Arkansas in 1950 and married Roger Clinton, according to Biography. Clinton took his stepfather’s name as a show of support for his mother, but the man turned out to be an alcoholic and an abusive husband. Clinton was disturbed by his stepfather’s behavior toward his mother and half-brother, and there was much tension at home.
Next: This president had a pretty great childhood, compared to the rest of this list.
5. Donald Trump
Unlike the others on this list, Donald Trump’s childhood came with privilege. Born in 1946 in New York, Trump’s father, Frederick, was a builder and real estate developer. Trump worked for his father in the summers and began attending the New York Military Academy at 13. He earned a degree at the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania and then joined the family business.
Next: This president grew up poor as dirt.
6. James Garfield
James Garfield served as the 20th U.S. president from March 4, 1881, until his assassination on Sept. 19, 1881. According to The Famous People, he was born to Abram and Eliza Garfield, the youngest of five children.
Garfield’s father, a wrestler by trade, died shortly after James was born. Garfield’s mother, alone with five children, did her best to keep the family afloat, but he grew up in abject poverty. To make matters worse, his mother remarried after his father died, and the troubled marriage ended in divorce. Garfield said, “Let us never praise poverty for the child at least.”
Next: Lincoln’s shocking background
7. Abraham Lincoln
American statesman and lawyer Abraham Lincoln served as the 16th president of the United States from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. Born in a log cabin in 1809, he lived through a very difficult childhood. Lincoln’s family moved to Indiana when he was 8, where they slept on the dirt floor on insect- and rodent-infested cornhusks. Lincoln had to walk to school every day 9 miles each way.
When Lincoln was 9, his mother died, and his overwhelmed father left him alone with his sister Sarah, 11, on the farm for several months. His father had gone to Kentucky to find a wife, and neighbor reports claimed the children were ragged and underfed, according to HubPages. Although Lincoln was quite fond of his father’s new wife, Sarah Bush Johnston, he had an awful relationship with his father, who often beat him and rented him out for manual labor.
Next: A kid with no horse sense
8. Ulysses S. Grant
Toward the end of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant served as U.S. general and commander of the Union army, and he later became the 18th U.S. president. According to the University of Virginia Miller Center website, he was the first of six children born to Jesse and Hannah Grant.
Because the schools he went to bored him and he spent most of his time being quiet, the other kids thought he was stupid and nicknamed him “Useless.” They also teased him unmercifully about a bad deal he made when he sold a horse at age 12. Grant later said, “Boys enjoy the misery of their companions, at least village boys in that day did, and in later life I have found that all adults are not free from the peculiarity.”
Grant also had to work in his father’s tannery, where the horrible work conditions were tough for an adult and much worse for a child. He swore he would never work in the tannery again once he became an adult.
Next: This president became a slave owner at 16.
9. James Monroe
Founding Father James Monroe was president of the United States from 1817 to 1825. According to The Famous People, his father died when he was just 16, and Monroe became the official owner of the family’s plantation and its slave. That was an awful lot of weight on the young man’s shoulders, but Monroe rose to the occasion and went on to become a beloved American leader.
Next: Another fatherless president
10. Rutherford B. Hayes
The 19th president of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes served from 1877 to 1881. He was Rutherford and Sophia Birchard Hayes’s fifth child, born in Delaware, Ohio, two months after his father’s death, according to the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums website. Raised by his mother and his maternal uncle, Sardis Birchard, Hayes was lucky to have male influence in his life. But growing up fatherless must have taken its personal toll.
Next: This president tried to join the British navy when he was 14.
11. George Washington
George Washington was the first U.S. president, serving from 1789 to 1797. He was born in 1732 to Augustine and Mary Ball Washington, according to the Encyclopedia of World Biography website, and his father died when he was only 11.
After his father died, Washington had to live with various relatives. And at 14, he tried to joined the British navy but stayed home because his mother forbid him. Washington did not inherit Augustine’s land and wealth — it went to the two oldest sons — and he knew from a young age that he would have to make his own way in the world. He definitely rose to the occasion.
Next: A controlling mother and an abusive father
12. Richard Nixon
Richard Milhous Nixon was the 37th president of the United States, best known for resigning halfway through his term in 1974. Born in 1913 in Yorba Linda, California, Nixon had a tough childhood.
His mother was very controlling, and his father was often abusive, according to the Encyclopedia of World Biography website. In addition, the family went through severe financial hardship, and Nixon had to work in the combination family grocery store and gas station to help makes ends meet. Many historians say as a result of his childhood, Nixon was driven to succeed by any means necessary.
Next: This president was a sickly child.
13. James Polk
James Knox Polk was the president of the United States, serving from 1845 to 1849. He was born in a log cabin in North Carolina in 1795, the eldest of 10 children.
Polk was a sickly child, according to History. When he was a teen, he survived what was a major operation during those times. A doctor operated on Polk for urinary stones long before antiseptics and anesthesia came on the scene. Rumor has it that in the way of anesthesia, Polk was given brandy before the operation.
Next: This president fought in the Revolutionary War when he was 13.
14. Andrew Jackson
The seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson served from 1829 to 1837. According to The Famous People, Jackson’s father died before he was born. In addition, his mother died — from cholera she contracted while nursing prisoners of war — when he was only 14. Jackson joined the Continental Army when he was 13 and fought in the Revolutionary War. The British captured and held him as a POW. When he wouldn’t clean a British officer’s boots, he slashed him with a sword.
Next: This president never attended school.
15. Andrew Johnson
Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson became the 17th president of the United States, serving from 1865 to 1869. His father died when he was only 3, and his mother was so poor that he had to become a tailor’s indentured servant.
Johnson ran away from his master after two years. Something in his childhood must have motivated him because he never attended school. He taught himself to read from a book someone gave him as a gift.
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