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Adams, John (19 October 1735–04 July 1826), second president of the United States, diplomat, and political theorist, was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, the son of John Adams (1691–1760), a shoemaker, selectman, and deacon, and Susanna Boylston. He claimed as a young man to have indulged in “a constant dissipation among amusements,” such as swimming, fishing, and especially shooting, and wished to be a farmer. However, his father insisted that he follow in the footsteps of his uncle Joseph Adams, attend Harvard College, and become a clergyman. John consented, applied himself to his studies, and developed a passion for learning but refused to become a minister. He felt little love for “frigid John Calvin” and the rigid moral standards expected of New England Congregationalist ministers....

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Arthur, Chester Alan (05 October 1829–18 November 1886), twenty-first president of the United States, was born in Fairfield, Vermont, of Irish and English descent, the son of William Arthur, a teacher and Baptist minister, and Malvina Stone. During his youth he and his family experienced considerable economic insecurity. Still, “Chet,” as friends called him, was given a solid classical education, and he graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 1848. At eighteen, Arthur was a tall, good-looking, charming, somewhat romantic young man who enjoyed debating and writing and who shared his father’s abolitionist beliefs....

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Barkley, Alben William (24 November 1877–30 April 1956), vice president of the United States, was born in a log cabin in a community named Wheel, between the villages of Lowes and Fancy Farm, in Graves County, Kentucky, the son of John Wilson Barkley and Electra Smith, tenant tobacco farmers. Named Willie Alben, the “Willie” for two uncles, he changed his name as soon as he could (as he put it, as soon as he was old enough to assert himself), letting it be known that he was Alben William “and no foolishness!” Barkley grew up in poverty, working on the farm. He did not graduate from high school but managed to enroll in a tiny Methodist institution, Marvin College, in Clinton, Kentucky. Upon graduation in 1897 he sold cookware to pay his way through law school. The crockery cracked upon use, and he was reduced to going back to purchasers and paying them for their losses out of his own pocket. He managed to borrow $200 to attend a year of law school, 1897–1898, at Emory College (now Emory University), then located in Oxford, Georgia. Lacking means to continue, he taught a few months at Marvin and thereupon moved to Paducah, where, with a few shirts, fifty cents in change, and a letter of introduction to a local lawyer, he began reading law. He was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1901 and had his last formal instruction in law during a summer at the University of Virginia in 1902. The next year he married Dorothy Brower, with whom he had three children....

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Burr, Aaron (06 February 1756–14 September 1836), revolutionary soldier, U.S. senator, and vice president of the United States, was born in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Aaron Burr, a theologian and the second president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), and ...

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Calhoun, John C. (18 March 1782–31 March 1850), vice president, U.S. senator, and secretary of state, was born John Caldwell Calhoun at what was then known as the District of Ninety-six, later known as Abbeville, on the frontier of southwestern South Carolina, the son of Patrick Calhoun, a prosperous Scotch-Irish farmer and one of the largest slave owners in the backcountry, and Martha Caldwell, also of Scotch-Irish descent. John Calhoun was the couple’s third son, and though like his older brothers and sister he did his share of farm work, the family considered him to have such promise that he deserved a better education than the local field schools afforded. Calhoun attended ...

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Clinton, George (26 July 1739–20 April 1812), soldier, governor of New York, and vice president of the United States, was born in Little Britain, New York, the son of Charles Clinton, a farmer and surveyor, and Elizabeth Denniston. After schooling with a private tutor, George left home in 1757 to serve as a steward’s mate on the ...

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Colfax, Schuyler (23 March 1823–13 January 1885), congressman and vice president of the United States, was born in New York City, the posthumous son of Schuyler Colfax, a bank clerk, and Hannah Stryker. He and his mother lived with his widowed grandmother while he attended public schools. At age ten he entered the workforce as a store clerk. In 1834 his mother married George W. Matthews, who removed the family to New Carlisle, Indiana, in 1836. Matthews ran a store (in which Colfax clerked) and held the patronage position of village postmaster. In 1841 Matthews was elected county auditor on the Whig ticket and moved to the county seat, South Bend. Colfax served as his deputy until 1849. Following his parents’ wishes, Colfax read law, but his real love was politics. He corresponded with prominent Whigs, contributed to ...

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Coolidge, Calvin (04 July 1872–05 January 1933), thirtieth president of the United States, was born John Calvin Coolidge in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, the son of John Calvin Coolidge, a storekeeper and farmer, and Victoria Moor. After graduating from Amherst College in 1895, Coolidge read law in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was admitted to the bar in 1897. In 1905 he married Grace Anna Goodhue ( ...

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Curtis, Charles (25 January 1860–08 February 1936), congressman, senator, and vice president of the United States, was born in North Topeka, Kansas, the son of Orren Arms Curtis, a soldier, and Ellen Gonville Pappan, a quarter-blood member of the Kansa (Kaw) Indian tribe. The only person of Indian blood to be elected to the second highest office in the land, Curtis traced his ancestry on the maternal side to Kansa chief White Plume, who married a daughter of the renowned Osage chief ...

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Dawes, Charles Gates (27 August 1865–23 April 1951), banker and vice president of the United States, was born in Marietta, Ohio, the son of General Rufus R. Dawes and Mary Beman Gates. His father served gallantly in the Civil War and later went into the lumber business and served one term in Congress. Dawes earned his B.A. (1884) and M.A. (1887) from Marietta College and his LL.B. (1886) from the Cincinnati Law School. In 1887 he moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, to practice law. He was an earnest opponent of the entrenched railroad powers, spending hours in court fighting discriminatory rail rates. His initial investments in real estate paid off, however, and he gradually became more sympathetic to conservative business views. For the rest of his life he would promote and defend the contribution of business and businessmen to the increasing wealth of the United States. He married Caro Blymyer of Cincinnati in 1889, and they had two children. After their son drowned in 1912, the couple adopted two more children. Although conservative, Dawes was always willing to hear opposing viewpoints. In Lincoln, Dawes became lifelong friends with ...

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Fillmore, Millard (07 January 1800–08 March 1874), thirteenth president of the United States, was born in Cayuga County, New York, the son of Nathaniel Fillmore and Phoebe Millard, farmers. Like many tenant farmers on New York’s western frontier, Fillmore’s parents had difficulty earning a decent living, and his childhood was one of hard work, frequent privation, and virtually no formal schooling. When he was apprenticed to a textile mill in his teens, Millard began to educate himself, reading voraciously and attending classes when the mill periodically shut down. A local judge encouraged Fillmore to study law, and by clerking for him and teaching school as well, Fillmore managed to buy out his obligation to the mill. Following his family west, Fillmore continued to read law and teach in Buffalo, and he was admitted to the bar at age twenty-three or twenty-four. He opened a law office in the nearby village of East Aurora, and two years later he married Abigail Powers. The couple had two children....

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Garner, John Nance (22 November 1868–07 November 1967), vice president and Speaker of the House, was born in Blossom Prairie, Red River County, Texas, the son of John Nance Garner III and Sarah Guest, farmers. With money he had saved from chores and playing semiprofessional baseball, Garner entered Vanderbilt University in 1886 but soon dropped out to return to Texas, where he read law and set up a practice in Clarksville at the age of twenty-one. The frail Garner contracted tuberculosis, however, and in 1893 moved to the drier climate of Uvalde, west of San Antonio. In Uvalde he joined the firm of Clark and Fuller prior to establishing his own office. Regaining his health, he prospered and became involved in community affairs as a publisher, banker, and county judge, an administrative post. He became a substantial landholder as well. In 1895 Garner married Mariette Rheiner, daughter of a prosperous rancher. They had one child....

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George Athan Billias

Gerry, Elbridge (17 July 1744–23 November 1814), statesman, was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts, the son of Thomas Gerry, a merchant, and Elizabeth Greenleaf. His father was a British immigrant who arrived in 1730, settled in Marblehead, and became one of the most successful merchants in Essex County. The brightest of eleven children, Elbridge entered Harvard in 1758, graduated in 1762, and returned in 1765—the year of the Stamp Act—to submit his master’s thesis. Already a firebrand at twenty-one, he argued in it the question: “Can the new Prohibitary Duties which make it useless for the people to engage in Commerce, be evaded by them as faithful subjects?” His answer was “Yes.”...

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Hamlin, Hannibal (27 August 1809–04 July 1891), fifteenth vice president of the United States, was born in Paris, Maine, the son of Cyrus Hamlin (1769–1829), a physician, sheriff of Oxford County, and farmer, and Anna Livermore. Hannibal was schooled locally and attended Hebron Academy for a year (1826–1827), worked as a clerk, learned surveying, and taught school briefly before returning home to run the family farm after his father died unexpectedly in 1829. Drawn into politics, he became co-owner of the local Democratic newspaper but soon left the concern....

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Hendricks, Thomas Andrews (07 September 1819–25 November 1885), twenty-first vice president of the United States, was born in Muskingum County, Ohio, the son of John Hendricks and Jane Thomson, farmers. Hendricks’s grandfather, Abraham Hendricks, served in the Pennsylvania legislature, and an uncle, William Hendricks...

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Hobart, Garret Augustus (03 June 1844–21 November 1899), vice president of the United States, was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, the son of Addison Willard Hobart, a schoolteacher, and Sophia Vandeveer. He attended local schools and graduated from Rutgers College in 1863. After teaching school briefly, he read law in the office of Socrates Tuttle in Paterson, New Jersey. He became a member of the New Jersey bar in 1866 and a law partner with Tuttle in 1869. He married Tuttle’s daughter, Jennie, the same year. The couple had two children, a son and a daughter....

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Humphrey, Hubert Horatio (27 May 1911–13 January 1978), thirty-eighth vice president of the United States and U.S. senator from Minnesota, was born in Wallace, South Dakota, the son of Hubert H. Humphrey, Sr., a druggist, and Christine Sannes. He left college in 1931 to help in his father’s store in Huron, South Dakota, where he became a registered pharmacist in 1933 and later met and married Muriel Buck in 1936; they had four children. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in June 1939 and earned a master’s degree from Louisiana State University in 1940. He returned to Minnesota for a doctoral program but soon left to work in a federal workers’ education program....

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Jefferson, Thomas (13 April 1743–04 July 1826), philosopher, author of the Declaration of Independence, and president of the United States, was born at Shadwell, in what became Albemarle County, Virginia, the son of Peter Jefferson, a pioneer farmer and surveyor, and Jane Randolph. He always valued the enterprising example of his father, who set him in the path of education; he became “a hard student,” indeed remained one throughout his life. Peter Jefferson died in 1757, leaving to his son a fair estate—5,000 acres and the slaves to work them. Less than three years later, Jefferson, already a proficient classical scholar, enrolled at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg....

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Johnson, Andrew (29 December 1808–31 July 1875), seventeenth president of the United States, was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, the son of the bank porter Jacob Johnson and the seamstress Mary McDonough. He lost his father at an early age and was apprenticed to the tailor James J. Selby. Like many poor whites, he never went to school but apparently learned to read and write at the tailor shop. At the age of fifteen he engaged in some youthful prank and ran away, causing Selby to post a reward of $10 for his apprehension. He returned in 1826 to settle his affairs with his employer but was unable to do so. He left on foot for Tennessee, then worked at his trade in Columbia, only to come back after six months to help his family. Together with his mother and stepfather, he set out once more for Tennessee, this time reaching the village of Greeneville, where he made his permanent home....

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Johnson, Lyndon Baines (27 August 1908–22 January 1973), thirty-sixth president of the United States, was born near Stonewall, Texas, the son of Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., a farmer and politician, and Rebekah Baines, a sometime teacher. Sam Ealy eked out a modest living and served as a state legislator for several years. Lyndon was the couple’s first child and by all accounts the favorite of Rebekah, who was determined that her son should have a proper education. From grade school on, Lyndon demonstrated a keen interest in politics, particularly his father’s Populist orientation, passing out campaign literature and eagerly listening to political discussions when Sam Ealy’s cronies visited the Johnson household....