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John Adams. After a painting by Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-13002 DLC).

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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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Agnew, Spiro T. (09 November 1918–17 September 1996), vice president, was born Spiro Theodore Agnew in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Margaret Pollard Akers Agnew and Theodore Spiro Agnew, who, after immigrating from Greece in 1897, changed his name from Anagnostopoulos. Agnew's father was a successful restaurateur and a leader in the Greek community until the Great Depression, when he lost his business and turned to selling fruit and vegetables on the street. Agnew supplemented the family income by doing odd jobs while he attended public schools in Baltimore. After graduating from Forest Park High School, he entered Johns Hopkins in 1937, majoring in chemistry, but in 1940 he left and began taking night classes at the University of Baltimore School of Law. During the day he worked alternately as an assistant personnel manager of a grocery-store chain and as an insurance investigator and claims adjuster. In 1942 he married Elinor Isabel Judefind, a coworker at his insurance company; they had four children....

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Chester A. Arthur Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-3976 DLC).

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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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Alben Barkley [left to right] Alben Barkley, Henry A. Wallace, and Harry S. Truman, 1944. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-116624).

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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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John Cabell Breckinridge. Hand-colored lithograph on paper, c. 1865, by Currier & Ives Lithography Company. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Breckinridge, John Cabell (21 January 1821–17 May 1875), vice president of the United States and Confederate general, was born in Lexington, Kentucky, the son of Joseph Cabell Breckinridge and Mary Clay Smith. Breckinridge was an only son born into a devoutly Presbyterian family that was distinguished by its leading role in the early history of the Jeffersonian Republican party in Kentucky. His grandfather was a U.S. senator, and his father was a lawyer and Kentucky state representative whose death in 1823 left the young Breckinridge to be raised by his mother and a grandmother at a family estate near Lexington. Breckinridge graduated from Centre College, Kentucky, in 1839, read law at the College of New Jersey in Princeton, and returned home to finish his legal studies at Transylvania University. He received his law degree in 1841 and moved to Burlington, Iowa, to start his law practice. Two years later he was permanently back in Kentucky, where he married Mary Cyrene Burch in 1843; they had six children....

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Aaron Burr. Engraving on paper, c. 1793 - 1814, by Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.