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Harry S. Truman
By Robert H. Ferrell
University of Missouri Press Copyright © 1994 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884, in the farm village of Lamar, Missouri, 120 miles south of Kansas City. The time was four o'clock in the afternoon, the place the small white frame house of his parents. His father and mother had married two and a half years before, and Harry was the second child—the first, also a boy, had been stillborn.
Such were the vital statistics, and behind their barrenness lay still other aridities. The scene that spring day in Missouri more than a century ago comes easily to mind: Lamar was a village of seven hundred people, made up of retired farmers and merchants who catered to farmers; the streets were arranged in regular fashion, lined by rows of houses with alleys and horse barns behind; at the center of the village stood the courthouse, on a square, around which the stores arranged themselves, facing each other, a motley assemblage, with their false fronts vying for attention. And away in all directions stretched the landscape of Missouri, which, like so much of the American Middle West, does not make the heart leap up: uninspiring countryside, most of it rolling fields, as far as the eye can see. When the child Harry Truman lived in Lamar the land raised wheat and corn, oats for horses and mules, and clover to rest the ground and, like oats, feed work animals. Dirt roads ran north and south, east and west, laid out to mark the square miles so readily discernible from an airplane window today; the Ordinance of 1785 had organized the Northwest Territory that way, and Missouri followed the pattern. Houses and barns fronted the roads, and every half-dozen miles was a village that looked like the preceding one. Near the center of each county a traveler encountered another village like Lamar, with a square, within which rose another courthouse. Missouri had, and still has, 114 counties.
The picture is deceptive. Missouri scenery may be beautiful only to the native beholder, but this does not mean Missourians lack imagination to do important things, as Truman proved in his lifetime. Indeed, nondescription is an advantage: if the commonplaces of Missouri offer no feasts to the eye, they serve to concentrate the mind. And Missouri has another advantage. Kansas City, near which Harry Truman spent the first fifty years of his life, lies almost in the geographical center of the United States. In that sense, the perspective is perfect.
The roster of Truman's forebears reached back into the eighteenth century, beyond which the lineage, like that of most Americans, was suspect. None of his known ancestors offered any evidence that the child of 1884 would become a national and international figure, his name a household word. Among the later president's more remote relatives, several possessed personalities that stood out, although not remarkably so; most families can discover such relatives on their family trees. Truman's great-grandmother on his father's side, Nancy Drusilla Tyler Holmes, born in Kentucky in 1780, married Jesse Holmes in 1803 and went out to Missouri with her husband, who died in 1840. Thereafter she moved from house to house of her children. Wherever she went she carried her husband's tall beaver hat, in its original box. Nancy Holmes's father had been a soldier in the Revolutionary War, and his absences left her mother with a household of children and slaves, whom the mother sometimes had to defend against the Indians. Once she drove the Indians from the door, only to have them try to come down the chimney; she smoked them out by stuffing a featherbed in the fireplace. Reportedly Nancy one time was scalped, and survived by lying still. A photograph taken in old age showing her with lace bonnet wrapped tightly around her head seems to offer credence to the story, though in actual fact there was no truth to it; the Truman family genealogist, Cousin Ethel Noland, eventual owner of the bonnet photograph, inquired of her mother, Aunt Ella, who lived to the age of ninety-nine. Ella said that as a young girl she had combed the long beautiful hair of Nancy, who died in 1874.
The later president liked to say that Nancy Holmes's maiden name of Tyler related the family to President John Tyler. "One of Tyler's father's brothers moved to Kentucky," he wrote, "and my great-grandmother was his daughter. We never bragged about the fact though because none of the family thought much of old man Tyler as a President." Truman found Tyler unimpressive because in 1861, living in Virginia, he had thrown in his lot with the Confederacy; the twentieth-century president had no fondness for the lost cause. But as for Tyler's being a relative, this was a figment of Harry Truman's imagination. Perhaps he espied the relationship because the nineteenth-century president established the precedent of making the vice president, when he assumed the presidency, the president and not acting president.
On his father's side, Nancy Tyler Holmes was the only remarkable ancestor. Truman did, however, remember well his Grandfather Anderson Shipp Truman, a pleasant, slight old man who died in 1887. Grandfather Truman was one of those people who pass through life without leaving much of an impression. A photograph shows the broad Truman forehead but a weak chin, almost hidden by a scraggly beard. After marrying Nancy Tyler Holmes's daughter Mary Jane while resident in Kentucky, Anderson Truman worried about what he had done—Mary Jane had been visiting in Kentucky and her mother was out in Missouri. Anderson had not asked permission to marry. To relieve his mind he saddled a horse, rode to Missouri, found his mother-in-law, begged forgiveness, received it, and, retracing his steps, collected Mary Jane and moved to Missouri. Grandfather Truman's politics were "the Union as it was"; that is, he was a Whig. He was also a slaveholder, having inherited his human chattels from the Holmes family. All his slaves were women, and he never bought one or sold one. Mary Jane died in 1878 and Anderson spent his remaining years with his son. When Harry Truman's parents bought the house in Lamar, they provided a room with a stove for the arthritic grandfather. After the birth of his grandson he said many times that Harry Truman would be president of the United States, but Harry's parents never believed such nonsense, nor did the grandfather.
One of the grandson's earliest memories was of being in the room when the old man died. Harry Truman heard an aunt say sadly, "He's gone," and ran to the bedside to pull at his grandfather's beard to awaken him.
On the maternal side of the family stood a formidable set of grandparents, whom young Harry knew far better than his paternal grandfather. Like the Anderson Trumans, Solomon and Harriet Louisa Young came from Kentucky. In 1841 they had taken a steamboat named the Fanny Wheeling from Louisville to St. Louis, and another to Westport Landing in present-day Kansas City. One can almost see the steamers, primitive craft in the 1840s, only a generation removed from Robert Fulton's Clermont—and dangerous craft, too, for they had an annoying habit of blowing up. Their tall funnels gave out wood smoke as paddle wheels noisily made the rounds. Half-floating, half-winding downriver, and then fighting slowly up the wide Missouri, the boats plied their way. On all sides stood forests, with hardly a cabin in sight until their arrival at the primitive landings, when the squat, ugly boats took on more wood and the passengers went ashore for whatever amenities the natives offered.
Upon reaching the City of Kansas, the Youngs clambered up the cliffs to find lodging and purchase a team and wagon. They thereafter acquired large amounts of land, thousands of acres. Solomon and Louisa always worked together. After halting their prairie schooner at the first portion of what would become their great holdings, Grandfather Young built a rail pen and threw brush over it, and grandmother stayed there—the rule of homesteading was that one had to remain on the land so many nights and cook so many meals—while grandfather rode to Clinton and entered the tract.
In addition to farming, Solomon Young drove wagon trains to Salt Lake City and San Francisco. For twenty-five years, he was gone on trips that lasted months at a time. On one trip he reached Salt Lake City to discover that goods he believed on consignment for the U.S. Army were not really sold. He discussed his predicament with the Mormon leader Brigham Young (no relation), who advised him to rent space on the main street and place his goods on display, saying that he would guarantee Solomon lost no money; this proved the case. During one of his trips Grandfather Young was said to have purchased a tract in the vicinity of present-day Sacramento, and if he had retained it would have become a rich man. An associate went bankrupt, however, according to the story, and Solomon lost the holding after paying the associate's debts.
During Solomon's absences Grandmother Young kept house in Missouri, and the work was not merely strenuous but dangerous. One day in 1861 a Union irregular, James H. "Jim" Lane, arrived with his men and forced Harriet Young to bake biscuits until her fingers blistered. The raiders killed all four hundred hogs, hacked off the hams and slung them across their saddles, set the barns on fire, and rode off. Ever afterward Grandmother Young and her daughter Martha Ellen hated Northerners. During this visitation the family silver disappeared, and once when her son came home from a trip to Kansas, Mrs. John Truman inquired if he had seen his grandmother's silver.
Grandfather Young died in 1892. His wife survived until 1909, when she passed on at the age of ninety-one. She had seen a great deal during her long life. Red-haired in youth, she had lived in the house in Kentucky where Stephen Foster composed his songs, and she knew him. Coming out to Missouri shortly after its founding, she watched the frontier give way to settlement; having witnessed both the great flood of 1844 and another flood of 1903, she said the more recent flood was no larger, but there was so much more to destroy. A few years later, wrinkled and gray, her mind confused and perhaps almost gone (a visitor said that she was accustomed to sit in her room, hour after hour, staring silently), she posed for her photograph, sitting in a rocker outside her farmhouse, with Harry Truman and his mother standing behind her. She represented the wealth and adventure and patience and, it could be said, grit of older times.
Harry Truman's father, John Anderson Truman, born in 1851, was an animal trader and farmer all his life except for two years when he was a night watchman in a Kansas City grain elevator. No one would have considered him the likely father of a president of the United States, least of all John Truman himself: one Sunday afternoon in the late summer of 1914, propped on his deathbed in a downstairs room of his bleak farmhouse, he told a neighboring couple, come to call, who were trying to cheer him, that his life had been a failure.
John Truman was no striking figure; he would have fit into any crowd. His nose was prominent and his eyes seemed quiet, though it might be said they peered rather than looked. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not favor the fashion of beards and mustaches that came in with the Civil War (the soldiers of 1861–1865 supposedly were too busy to shave); his was an unadorned face that in summers must have sunburned and then tanned with the sun and wind. He was a small man; as a child he had been disturbingly small, even tiny, and in manhood he stood five feet four, two inches shorter than his wife. His granddaughter Margaret would remark how photographs of Mr. and Mrs. John Truman showed the wife sitting, husband standing, and thought it because of her grandfather's height. But that, one suspects, was simply the way Victorian photographers posed husbands and wives.
For some reason—perhaps he was trying to make up for his size—the elder Truman was highly tempered. Because he was a dealer in horses, mules, cows, goats, and sheep, John Truman often carried a stub of a buggy whip, and one day a man appeared in an Independence livery stable to get his horse and buggy, face bleeding, almost in tears; he had gotten into an argument with John, who struck him with the whip. Another story related to a court trial in Independence. An unfriendly attorney, a big, bluff man, was interrogating John. After asking a question and receiving an answer he said, in an effort to change the witness's testimony, "Now, John, you know that's just a damn lie." John Truman jumped out of the witness chair and chased the big attorney out of the courthouse. Still another story related to farm years after the turn of the present century, when the Trumans were on the big farm of Mrs. Truman's mother near the village of Grandview. Neighbors allegedly saw Harry Truman's brother, Vivian, riding a horse down a road at great speed, with the boys' father seated behind, holding a hatchet. Father and son were on their way to a neighbor's to settle an argument about a fence.
John Truman's irritabilities seldom spilled over into family life. He never laid hands on the children; words sufficed. In fact, he could show a gentler side at home: he loved to sing when the family spent time around the piano in the evenings. Harry and his sister, Mary Jane, remembered their father singing hymns in a light, pleasant voice. The only time the later president remembered his father showing choler at home was once when Harry was a child on the farm accustomed to riding behind his father's horse on a Shetland pony. One day he fell off, and his father forced him to walk a half-mile, on the theory that if he could not stay on a pony he deserved to walk. This may not have been evidence of temper, rather just an effort to teach a youngster how to stay in a saddle, although Martha Ellen Truman, John's wife, was not happy over the affair.
The father of the president sometimes exhibited another notable quality: willingness to take a chance. Where this trait came from is difficult to say. In livestock dealings he naturally took chances, as people were bound to deceive him. Such experiences probably had nothing to do with larger chance-taking. Perhaps it derived from a vein of restlessness. He never stayed in one place. When the family moved about, it often was because he was trying a new farm. He once acquired a farm that ran right up the side of a hill, impossible ground except for scrub trees and groundhogs, but he hoped it might be worthwhile. One summer he took his elder son through a dozen creek crossings and forty miles to look it over. He was an amateur inventor, and patented a staple-puller and a wire-stretcher for barbed-wire fences; it is unclear whether he made any money on them. He seems to have invented an automatic railroad switch, and the Missouri Pacific offered two thousand dollars a year in royalties, a dollar a switch for two thousand of the devices. The Chicago and Alton offered twenty-five hundred. Ever the chance-taker, John set a price of two dollars a switch, for twenty-five hundred: that meant five thousand dollars a year. Both lines rejected his price. Later the Missouri Pacific used an improved version of the invention, and John was unable to establish further claim to it.
In 1901 John Truman put everything he had, and everything his wife had inherited, into grain futures. He had become acquainted with a high roller in Kansas City, William T. Kemper, the founder of one of the great fortunes in the United States. Kemper possessed an instinct for investments and always multiplied his money. John Truman did not have the touch—nor, for that matter, enough money to have a touch—and lost everything. He was forced to move his family to Kansas City and become a watchman. His disastrous speculation prevented Harry Truman from going to college, something the son wanted to do.
Harry Truman's mother lived much longer than John Truman and hence was of more importance in her son's life. Martha Ellen Truman was a darkly pretty young woman upon her marriage in 1881, and a bent, gnarled old lady with a prominent, hawklike nose when she passed on in 1947 during her son's presidency. Her famous son was immensely fond of her.
The most notable trait of Harry Truman's mother was her outspokenness. Martha Ellen Truman held opinions and did not mind relating them. Her son was frank on occasion, sometimes when diplomacy dictated otherwise, and doubtless obtained the habit from his mother. Truman, however, was never as outspoken as she, or he could not have risen in politics. He was capable of outbursts, but he never showed feelings to the extent his mother did. One time when he was presiding judge—that is, principal county commissioner—of Jackson County, he spent a few days on the farm, tired out, trying to get away from office seekers, and heard his mother raking everyone she could think of. It got on his nerves, though he did not tell her.
Excerpted from Harry S. Truman by Robert H. Ferrell. Copyright © 1994 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
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