Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman / Edition 1

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Harry S. Truman is remembered today as an icon—the plain-speaking president, "Give 'em Hell Harry," the chief executive who put "The Buck Stops Here" on his desk. But Alonzo L. Hamby shows that there was more to Truman than the pugnacious fighter so prominent in popular memory. Insecure, ambitious, a man of honor, a partisan loyalist, an agrarian Jeffersonian Democrat who became a champion of big government, Truman was a complex figure who fought long and hard to triumph over his own weaknesses.
In Man of the People, Hamby offers a gripping account of this distinctively American life, tracing Truman's remarkable rise from marginal farmer in rural Missouri to shaper of the postwar world. Truman comes alive in these pages as he has nowhere else, making his way from the farmhouse, to the front lines in France during World War I, to the difficult small-business world of Kansas City—all the time struggling with his deep feelings of inadequacy and immense ambition. Hamby provides an honest, incisive look at the rising politician's relationship with Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast, who sponsored his career from the county court to the U.S. Senate. We see how Truman, a ferocious and skilled fighter in factional party battles, tried to balance his sense of honor with his political loyalties. Free of corruption himself, he nevertheless refused to repudiate Pendergast even when the boss was sinking under the weight of his ties to organized crime. Hamby also offers the best account yet of Truman's critical years in the Senate, covering not only his World War II probe of the defense program but also his neglected and revealing populist investigations of the railroads during the 1930s. He demonstrates that Truman was one of the most popular and respected members of the upper house.
Hamby is particularly acute in his portrait of Truman's volatile presidency. He criticizes some aspects of the decision to drop the atomic bombs against Japan but concludes that, considered in context, the act was understandable and justified. Providing new insight into the Cold War, he identifies the Turkish and Iranian crisis of 1946 as crucial turning points in Truman's attitudes toward the Soviet Union. Thoroughly covering Truman's struggle for "liberalism in a conservative age," Hamby also sheds great light on the president's Fair Deal domestic program.
Harry Truman, Hamby writes, was a flawed man—insecure, often petty and vindictive—yet one of the great presidents of the twentieth century. But Americans cherish him less for what he did than for who he was: an ordinary person who worked his way up the political ladder to the summit of power. In Man of the People, Alonzo L. Hamby provides a richly perceptive biography, giving us the best look yet at who Truman was, how he changed, and why he triumphed.

Hamby offers the best portrait yet of Truman's complex personality, revealing an insecure, ambitious man of honor, a partisan loyalist, and a champion of big government. Americans cherish him less for what he did than for whom he was -- an ordianary man who worked his way up the political ladder to the summit of power.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Harry Truman became an American icon after his death in 1972, but as Hamby (Beyond the New Deal) reminds us, he was widely discredited by the end of his second term in the White House: ``During the later years of his presidency, the public would increasingly see not his fundamental generosity or his great decisions, but his gaffes, pettiness, and unpredictability.'' Hamby's rich portrait reveals a man devoted to honesty and efficiency in public service, who excelled at building bipartisan coalitions, displayed an ability to make hard decisions and was ``magnificently right'' in his contributions to the early civil rights movement and to the mobilization of the West against the Soviet challenge. In Hamby's view, Truman personified the evolution of American social and political democracy in the first half of the 20th century. His biography vividly defines the man, both public and private.
Library Journal
Following David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative Truman (LJ 6/1/92) and Robert Ferrell's scholarly Harry S Truman: A Life (LJ 12/94), is there need for another comprehensive Truman biography? Yes, and noted Truman historian Hamby provides it. Unlike McCullough, Hamby offers an analytical model for viewing Truman, a liberal president serving in increasingly conservative times. Current fascination with Truman, Hamby notes, has more to do with his typically middle-class struggle to achieve success than with what he actually accomplished as president. Truman, an honest politician operating in a corrupt political environment, was overly defensive about his family and his association with the Pendergast political syndicate of Missouri. Yet with the unraveling of the New Deal and World War II consensus, he was successful in mustering bipartisan support for his great foreign policy successesthe Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine and, to a lesser extent, his progressive civil rights plank. This balanced assessment, although well written, lacks McCullough's narrative grace. Yet it presents a more dispassionate interpretation that will be welcomed by students of the presidency and public administration. Strongly recommended for large presidential studies and Truman collections. Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, Pa.
Book World Washington Post
Hamby presents a beautifully constructed and scrupulously researched portrait of Truman that strips away the mythologizer's varnish to give us the authentic, gutsy politician whose life was a potent testimony to burning ambition, good judgment, and blind luck.
From the Publisher

"A massive, engaging, and revealing political and personal study.... Hamby has taken us a step beyond mythology."--Chicago Tribune

"Hamby presents a beautifully constructed and scrupulously researched portrait of Truman that strips away the mythologizer's varnish to give us the authentic, gutsy politician whose life was a potent testimony to burning ambition, good judgment, and blind luck. "--The Washington Post Book World

"What Mr. Hamby has done, with great skill, is to remind us of the real Harry Truman, to demythologize him without slighting his accomplishments or his rough road to success."--The New York Times Book Review

"An altogether splendid biography."--Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195045468
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 10/26/1995
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 800
  • Sales rank: 693,505
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.62 (h) x 2.30 (d)

Meet the Author

About the Author:
Alonzo L. Hamby is Professor of History at Ohio University. His books include Liberalism and its Challengers, The Imperial Years, and Beyond the New Deal: Harry S. Truman and American Liberalism.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"I Was Kind of a Sissy":
In Search of Self, 1884-1906


"Mr. President, was you popular when you was a boy?"

"Why, no, I was never popular," the old man told the crowd of school children in the Truman Library auditorium. "The popular boys were the ones who were good at games and had big, tight fists. I was never like that. Without my glasses I was blind as a bat, and to tell the truth, I was kind of a sissy. If there was any danger of getting into a fight, I always ran. I guess that's why I'm here today."

It was one of Harry Truman's rare moments of candor about his childhood. A man who gloried in a public roles as a gutsy, bourbon-drinking, poker-playing, frank-speaking fighter, he admitted, if just for an instant, that his difficulties in life had gone beyond hard election campaigns and bad luck in business. Behind his confession lay years of struggle to become the sort of man who would win the respect of his peers and, above all, that of his father. The tension of becoming something he wasn't strengthened him in many ways, but it also left scars: an inordinate touchiness, a quick temper, and an insatiable demand for a recognition that stayed with him throughout his life.

Much of the story of Truman's life consists of alternating episodes of struggle and accommodation—to his physical limitations and to the rapidly changing social and economic conditions of twentieth-century America. Such was the fate of many of children and grandchildren of the American frontier.


America was a land of democracy, individualism, and opportunity in 1846 when Anderson ShippedTruman and his bride settled near Westport Landing, Missouri, not too far from another couple they had known back in Kentucky, Solomon and Harriet Louisa Young. Everyone was, in theory, equal; everyone had a chance in life. A vast, sparsely settled land offered resources apparently without end to those who had the initiative and hardihood to claim them. The Trumans and the Youngs displayed both qualities.

Anderson Truman and his wife, Mary Jane Holmes, were of the yeoman gentry of the upper South. Their parents had been part of the early wave of settlement from Virginia to the dark and bloody ground of Kentucky in the early days of the republic. The Trumans and Holmeses had fought Indians, staked out lands, raised crops, acquired a few slaves, and prospered. Thus, went the prevalent assumption, might any ambitious young couple willing to move west over trails blazed by the Indian traders, risk the scalping knife, and work hard at carving out for the themselves a small slice of the nation's destiny.

The Trumans could be all the more assured of success with a bit of help from well-to-do parents and in-laws. Anderson Truman purchased 200 acres of prime farmland; his mother-in-law, Nancy Tyler Holmes, gave the newlyweds some slaves as a wedding gift. The couple lived in comfortable prosperity, leading figures in the Baptist Church and main-stays of their community. They raised five children; the third, John Anderson, was born in 1851. In 1853, the family moved just north of the Misouri River to a farm in Platte County, a quiet Kentucky-like area with a plantation culture. There they lived for the next thirteen years.

In the same Kentucky that produced the Trumans, Sol Young, an orphan at the age of twelve, had made his way in the world. Twenty-three years old in 1838, he married nineteen-year-old Harriet Louisa Gregg, herself an orphan at ten. It is unclear whether Young benefited from an inheritance or made himself a man of means solely through muscle and ambition. It is indisputable that both he and his new wife possessed the limitless energy and self-reliance of archetypical American pioneers.

In 1841, the Youngs sold 800 acres that Sol had accumulate on the Little Bullskin River and, with their two children, took a steamboat down the Ohio, up the Mississippi, and westward on the broad Missouri. Just south and east of the great bend where the Missouri turns north, they settled near the jumping-off point for the great West at the confluence of the Missouri, Kansas, and Blue rivers in Jackson County.

Sol restlessly acquired and sold large tracts of land. He also hauled freight and led cattle drives west. Spending three years raising cattle in California, he acquired a Spanish land grant that purportedly included much of the present city of Sacramento; ultimately, he disposed of it for $75,000. He missed some main chances but cashed in on others. Louisa stayed at home, bore seven more children, ran the farm, and balked only at joining him in the West. By 1861, he was back in Missouri, a prosperous farmer and businessman who owned 1,300 acres.

During the Civil War, the Trumans and the Youngs sympathized with the South, more our of ties of kinship and culture than personal economic considerations. Both families suffered in the nasty guerrilla warfare along the Missouri-Kansas border. In 1861, Louisa was tending the farm by herself during one of her husband's absences when the Unionist Jayhawker Jim Lane and his Redlegs raided the property, made her cook biscuits for them until her hands blistered, slaughtered the hogs for their own use, shot the chickens, burned the barns, and stole her silver. They repeatedly hanged her son Harrison, a boy of thirteen, by the neck, nearly strangling him to death in an effort to make him admit that his father was in the Confederate Army. (Actually, he was taking a load of freight across the Great Plains, but the eldest son, William, was a Confederate soldier.) On four other occasions, Union troops confiscated the Youngs' livestock and property.

In July 1862, Young signed an oath of loyalty to the United States, but in August 1863, his family still fell prey to Union Order No. 11, which mandated the internment of all Confederate sympathizers in Jackson and tow and a half other counties. Sol was away again; Louisa and the six children still at home loaded as much as they could in an oxcart and followed in into Kansas City. Their house and whatever the Union irregulars did not loot went up in flames. Louisa and her children spent the next few months confined to a federal "post" and then made their way to Platte County, where they spent the duration of the war. For the rest of their lives, they harbored an unquenchable hatred for Abraham Lincoln, blue uniforms, and Kansans.

A quarter-century later, after Congress has passed a law permitting loyal citizens to request compensation for Civil War losses, Sol and Louisa filed for $21,442. The claim itemized the confiscation of 224 head of livestock, 1,500 bushels of corn, 43,000 fence rails, 1,200 pounds of bacon, 7 wagons, and a "house used for guardhouse." It remained unsettled at Sol's death, unpaid at Harriet's. Their heirs and attorneys would finally divide just $3,800.

The Trumans were luckier. At the beginning of the war, they took their few slaves to Kansas and set them free. Their farm was relatively unmolested. (Order No. 11 did not include Platte County.) Anderson signed a loyalty oath near the end of April 1863. Nonetheless, he was restricted to his home county. His family also lived in fear of the Redlegs and once spent a cold autumn night hiding from them in a cornfield.


In all, the Youngs and the Trumans escaped the war relatively unscathed. The Trumans moved back to Jackson County and established themselve on 200 acres near Hickman's Mills. Mary Jane died in 1879. Anderson's oldest son, William, had gone off on his own, but John stayed to help run the farm. The Youngs acquired nearly 400 acres a few miles away, outside the town of Grandview. Sol registered the property in Louisa's name, built a big house on it, and made last trip west around 1870. He continued to buy and sell lan actively; by the end of 1869, he and Louisa held over 2,200 acres.

Both families were prominent. Both were Baptists, the Trumans vehemently so. It must have seemed a natural match when on December 28, 1881, John Truman married Sol's eighth child, Martha Ellen. The newlyweds moved to the town of Lamar, about 100 miles south. For $685 John bought a large lot with a small frame house and a big barn; he went into business as a livestock trader. Anderson sold his farm and moved in with them.

John Truman was thirty years old when he married, left his father's farm, and started out on his own. He was a bantam of a man, about five feet, four inches tall. As his children told it long after his death, he was a gentle father who seldom spoke a harsh word to them, had a soft voice, loved music, and sang as he worked. He also groped after the success his father and father-in-law had achieved but became bitter as he eventually found it out of reach in the more settled world of the late nineteenth century. One Lamar old-timer remembered him as a hot-tempered little man with a high-pitched voice who spoke in what some local residents took for an "English brogue."

In a culture in which it was relatively common for men to come to blows over differences, John Truman never hesitated to resolve disputes with his fists. Once, after he had moved his family to Independence, he was testifying in a lawsuit when the lawyer for the opposition called him a liar. He jumped from the witness stand, fists flying, and chased the attorney, a six-footer who weighed well over 200 pounds, into the street. After a while, he returned alone. "Did you get him, John?" asked the judge. "No, he got away." The response from the bench indicated how close western Missouri still was to the frontier: "Too bad. That fellow really had a good beating coming to him."

A shrewd, persuasive trader, John managed to walk the fine line between good salesmanship and outright crookedness. His honesty won wide recognition, but as his elder son put it, after he closed a deal, "the other fellow was never sure he had all his hide." a Trader and speculator, he strove to get ahead much as his elders had, through a combination of hard work and risky enterprise.

His bride was tow inches taller than he and at twenty-nine years old had been an old maid in the eyes of her relative an acquaintances. An alumna of Central Female College in Lexington, Missouri, where she had studied art, music, and literature, Martha Young Truman was a talented amateur artist, a devote of the piano, and a lover of English literature who never lost her admiration for Alexander Pope. Like many rural and small-town wives, she had a considerably better education than her husband and saw the transmission of learning and culture to her offspring as one of the duties of motherhood. She also was a fun-loving woman who called herself a lightfoot Baptist because she ignore condemnations of social dancing and enjoyed a good party. But she was not a frail, over-cultured female unsuited to a tough environment. Very much the daughter of her strong pioneer mother, Martha ran things in the sphere she carved out for herself and usually got her own way. She handled a 16-gauge shotgun as well as most men. Independent, opinionated, and assertive, she was as tough as a barrel of roofing nails.

John and Martha lived in Lamar for about three years. Her first pregnancy resulted in a stillbirth. The second was successful. On May 8, 1884, she bore a healthy baby boy. It was symptomatic of her ability to have her way that they named him Harry for her brother Harrison and gave him the middle initial "S.," which could be represented as abbreviating her father's first name or her father-in-law's seldom-used middle name.(*)

John Truman apparently found himself unable to make a good living on livestock trading alone. Two months before Harry's first birthday, he sold the Lamar property for $1,600. The family moved back north, briefly to Harisonville, and then to a farm near Belton in Cass County, a few miles from the Young and Truman homesteads across the Jackson County line. There on April 25, 1886, Martha gave birth to a boy, John Vivian. The following year, they moved to Grandview to manage the Young farm. Anderson Truman died there a few months later. Harry, barely three, heard someone say "He's gone," came into the room, and tugged at the old man's beard in an effort to awaken him.

The Grandview years were good for the Trumans. John not only managed the Young farm, but purchased 120 acres for himself, 40 of them from his father-in-law. On August 12, 1889, Martha gave birth to their third child, a daughter they named Mary Jane, after John's mother. For Harry, surrounded by loving relatives, the time at Grandview was memorable. When Harry was six, old Sol, by then a white-haired man with a long bear, took him to the Cass County fair at Belton to watch the horse races from the judges' box. Uncle Harrison, a muscular, six-foot bachelor, brought him and the other children candy and gifts from Kansas City. Harry and Vivian lived a Norman Rockwell childhood, romping through pastures and riding ponies, secure and innocent in a small, benign world.

Even in Arcadia, of course, all was not perfect. Harry occasionally learned the hard way. One day, while riding with his father, he fell off his Shetland pony. An angry John Truman snapped that any boy who could not stay on a pony at a walk ought to walk himself and made him return to the house leading the animal on foot. "Mamma thought I was badly mistreated, but I wasn't," he recalled seventy years later. "I spite of my crying all the way to the house, I learned a lesson."

Harder lessons began to come at the age of five. Under his mother's tutelage, Harry had begun to read, but the displayed difficulty with anything other than the large-type family Bible, which he eventually read twice in its entirety. A doctor diagnosed malformed eyeballs and prescribed thick, expensive, fragile glasses. It was not until he began elementary school three years later that Harry was fitted with them. But already he had been set apart. Suddenly, the little boy's weak vision made many of the normal childhood activities that he had enjoyed seem hazardous. He helped in the kitchen. He attended to his baby sister, regularly fixing her hair and rocking her to sleep. ("Mama, make Harry bye-o," she would cry when she wanted attention.) He spent more and more time reading. The adjustment would have been difficult enough in the secluded little environment in which he lived; it no doubt became even more trying when the family made yet another move.

However good the years on the Young farm had been, John was a man with wider ambitions. Martha had bigger dreams also—for her children, especially Harry. The rural schools, she told her husband, were not good enough. They had to move to town so that Harry could get a first-class education, In 1890, the family left the farm for Independence.


A growing county-seat city of 6,000, ten miles east of the emerging metropolis of Kansas City, Independence promised opportunities to an ambitious speculator. Poised in midstage between a frontier past and a twentieth-century future, southern in its atmosphere, it was still vividly mindful of three separate Civil War battles. The veterans of Quantrill's raiders, the most notorious of Missouri's Confederate guerrillas, held annual reunions. Young Harry probably did not yet know that in 1873 the first husband of his Aunt Sallie, a rogue named James (Jim Crow) Chiles, had been killed in a gunfight with Deputy Marshall Jim Peacock on the courthouse square. The old outlaw Frank James lived a few miles away near Kearney and drew crowds of admirers on his infrequent visits to town.(In 1902, James's former associate, Cole Younger, was released from the Minnesota state penitentiary; he settled in nearby Lee's Summit and supported himself by giving public lectures on the wages of sin.)

Business centered around the courthouse square, bounded by posts swagged with heavy chains to which horses and wagons were tied. In rainy weather, the dirt streets became avenues of mud, studded during the summer with discarded watermelon rinds. Most men wore boots with their trousers tucked into the tops; many still carried knives or guns. Covered boardwalks lined the storefronts on all sides of the square. The saloons were perpetually busy. Fistfights were common, especially on election days, when the voters of each of the city's four wards cast their ballots at different corners of the square. Nighttime holdups and burglaries were surprisingly frequent, many of them pulled off by blacks who disappeared into their districts of Kansas City.

When the Trumans moved to Independence, it had no water system, no paved streets or sidewalks, no electricity. Wood was the fuel commonly used for heating and cooking. A trip to Kansas City was an all-day experience in good weather, an impossibility in bad. The city showed a veneer of civilization—numerous churches, schools, a library, two newspapers, and a substantial educated class. Still, the transition from farm to town was easy. For John Truman, who planned to concentrate on livestock trading, it was more akin to a move of the farm to town.

Truman purchased a big house with a white cupola on Crysler Street, not far from the Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks. The neighborhood consisted of prosperous upper-middle-class homes, displaying those little touches of the extravagant characteristic of Gilded Age architecture. John bought two adjacent lots, fenced his property, probably built a barn or an animal shed, and conducted what appears to have been a thriving livestock business. He hired a black couple, Caroline Hunter and her husband, Letch Simpson, to do household work. Their children usually came along to do small chores or play with the Truman youngsters in the big yard. In keeping wit the attitude toward blacks that his family taught him, Harry would take time from his duties as president fifty years later to facilitate assistance for one of them who had fallen on hard times.

The family found a natural-gas deposit on the property and used it for winter heating. (It was characteristic of John Truman that he became embroiled in a lawsuit with the driller. It was probably in this case that he chased the attorney who insulted him into the street.) When the gas ran out in 1895, John traded the Crysler property for an equally big house with a huge lot on Waldo Street. In partnership with a man named Oscar Mindrup, he went into the real-estate and grocery businesses. An inventor who held at least two patents, he developed an idea for an automatic railroad switch, a device with substantial profit potential; but when the demanded too high a royalty from interested railroads, they came up with an alternative. He also began to speculate profitably in commodity futures.

By the turn of the century, John's livestock enterprise took him as far south as Texas. On at least one or two occasions in the 1890s, the entire family took train trips there to visit John's older brother, William, who had moved to the Southwest in the early 1870s shortly after the death of his first wife. He had left behind his son, Ralph, who was passed around from one family of Missouri Trumans to another until he joined the army during the Spanish-American War. He had a near-brotherly, and sometimes tempestuous, relationship with Harry that endured throughout their lives.

If the Trumans were a relatively cohesive family, the Youngs long had been at one another's throats. When Sol Young died in 1892 without a will and leaving 1,520 acres of land, his children soon were bitterly disputing his estate. On one side were Harrison and Martha; on the other, William and two sisters: Laura and Sallie. The groups traded accusations that the other had already received substantial "advancements" from Sol's estate and thus should be disqualified from any further share. At this point, the Trumans were the only losers; John had to deed the 80 acres he had acquired in 1889 to "the heirs of Solomon Young," probably because Sol had held a mortgage on it or had otherwise financed it. In October 1894, all parties signed an agreement to acquiesce in whatever differential awards the court might choose to make. The Trumans realized 160 acres and $286. The following year, they purchased another 40 acres from Harrison.

Sol's widow must have watched with anger and despair. The owner of 398 acres in her own name, Louisa already had assented to accept a child's share of the state, rather than the half interest to which she was entitled. In 1893, after her home at Grandview had burned to the ground, she had moved into Independence to stay with the trumans while Harrison saw to the building of a new, considerably less pretentious farmhouse. It seems clear that she felt estranged from her other children. On March 30, 1895, she signed a last will and testament; it provided $5 for each of them except the two that she felt were taking care of her, Harrison and martha. They were to receive all the rest of her property. John's attorney, J. M. Callahan, witnessed and probably drafted the document. It provided a powerful incentive for the Trumans to help out Louisa in every way, for it meant an eventual half-ownership of the 518 acres of prime farmland that she possessed after the settlement of Solomon's estate. For the Trumans, this prize must have seemed the future capstone of a life that was already prosperous.

For many Americans—workers in industrial towns and cities made jobless by a severe depression, farmers in the plains states and the South facing falling crop prices and foreclosure—the 1890s were desperate years, scarred politically by the Populist revolt and the bitter Bryan-McKinley presidential campaign of 1896. But for much of the middle class living in well-kept houses on elm-lined streets, the decade was the Gay Nineties. The Truman family belonged to this group. As he moved through his forties, John Truman could count himself among the lucky.

When he was interested in something other than his business, it was usually politics. In the tradition of the Trumans and the Youngs, he was an intensely partisan Democrat whose whose attachment to his party went beyond ideological considerations. When Grover Cleveland won the election of 1892, he nailed a flag to the cupola of the Crysler house in celebration. He supported Bryan, Cleveland's ideological antithesis, with equal enthusiasm in 1896. In 1900, he attended the Democratic National Convention, held in Kansas City, to cheer Bryan's second nomination. He watched from the box of his host, prominent Kansas City banker William Kemper. Clearly, he had moved a few steps away from the ragged farmers and workers whom Bryan vainly attempted to unite, but it mattered little. The party allegiance that John Truman inherited from his father was not based on class conflict; it was a product of the guerrilla warfare along the Missouri-Kansas border. He passed his faith along to his children, and they accepted it without question.


Harry's early years in Independence produced some fond memories. The Truman house, with its big yard and farm animals, was a gathering place for neighborhood children. John Truman has a little wagon made for Harry and Vivian; a leather worker named Henry Rummell crafted a set of harnesses for a team of goats; and the children paraded around the neighborhood in the rig. Harry did his share of the chores, most of them farm work—milking he cows, herding them to pasture and back, currying the horses, taking the animals to a big public spring two blocks south for water, weeding the garden. He and Vivan sold newspapers for a time, not with a lot of business sense, he recalled: "We usually spent the capital and profit for ice cream sodas and the our father would have to finance us again but we had a lot of fun."

In the fall of 1892, fitted at last with thick eyeglasses, Harry began the first grade at the age of eight. The Independence school instructors taught basic reading, writing, and arithmetic in the no-nonsense preprogressive tradition. A handbook of rules and regulation issued in 1909 expressed the tone of the school during Harry's years in it. Students were expected "to be punctual and regular in attendance; obedient in spirit; orderly in action; diligent in study; gentle and respectful in manner."

Harry no doubt received strong injunctions from his mother to study hard and obey the teachers—most of them unmarried women and all with names that personified the small-town, Victorian Midwest: Miss Myra Ewin, Miss Minnie Ward, Miss Jennie Clements, Miss Mamie Dunn, Aunt Nannie Wallace. He was a good, earnest student, if far from brilliant, and probably a favorite among them. Years later, he recalled, probably accurately, that none of his teachers had been bad: "They gave us our high ideals, and they hardly ever received more than forty dollars a month for it." He also remembered how at an early age he had learned the way to get ahead: "Whenever I entered a new school room I would watch the teacher and her attitude toward the pupils, study hard, and try to know my lesson better than anyone else."

In January 1894, both he and Vivian contracted diptheria. There was no known antitoxin; the doctors prescribed ipecac and whiskey; fifty years later, Harry claimed (despite his fondness for bourbon) still to hate the smell of both. Vivian recovered quickly. Harry lingered for months, his throat and right side paralyzed. On his tenth birthday, he was unable to walk and had to be moved about in a baby buggy. Soon afterward, he was well and never critically ill again for the next sixty years. Sent to summer school to make up for the half-year of second grade he had missed, he did so well that in the fall he was placed in the fourth grade, joining his own age group for the first time.

He enlarged his horizons in other ways. The town has a good public library with about 3,000 volumes; he spent a lot of time there, browsing through encyclopedias and other works. He read avidly at home as well, mostly book checked out of the library but also some his mother bought for him. When he was ten, she gave him a four-volume set edited by Charles F. Horne, Great Men and Famous Women, a beautifully bound, lavishly illustrated collection of biographical articles from leading adult periodicals. The first volume, Soldiers and Sailors—with its sketches of such leaders as Alexander the Great, Hannibal, and Charles Martel—especially captured Harry's imagination.

He also became a devoted reader of Mark Twain. A Missourian raised in a southern-style environment, a writer capable of dealing with a great themes in prose that a child could read, a commentator who addressed contemporary manners and morals with ironic, blunt, and pithy epigrams, Twain had a special appeal that endured through Harry Truman's life. Both to the boy and to the mature man, Twain was the sort of figure that Benjamin Franklin had been to an earlier generation of Americans—an inspirational, practical philosopher who won adherents with elemental, easily remembered maxims. One that Harry learned early and frequently repeated as an adult was "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."

For a few months, shortly after he began high school, Harry got up early every morning to open Clinton's Drugstore on the town square, sweep the sidewalks, dust off the bottles on the shelves, crank the ice-cream freezer, and take care of a few early customers. His most lasting impressions came from church members and Anti-Saloon Leaguers who slipped in after breakfast every day for a 10-cent of whiskey. They initiated a lasting skepticism about "the public front of leading citizens and `amen-corner-praying' churchmen."

As he remembered it twenty years or so later, Harry did not do much at Clinton's: "I ate ice cream and candy and usually failed to show up when windows were to be washed." But others recalled it differently. Long afterward, Mary Paxton Keeley remembered—or thought she remembered—her friend Bessie Wallace remarking that she wished Harry did not have to work so hard. Piled on top of piano lessons, chores at home, and school assignments, the job was too much for him. He was proud of the $3 a week he was making, but his grades began to slip. His father told him to quit the job and spend more time studying.

Independence High School offered only a three-year curriculum. Old-fashioned, solid, and not terribly different from the education that Franklin D. Roosevelt was receiving at Groton at about the same time, it emphasized the classics, rhetoric, logic, mathematics, natural science, history, and English literature. As a teenager, Harry read Cicero, Plutarch, Caesar, and Marcus Aurelius, learning and never forgetting the vices and virtues of the ancients. He emerged from the experience a truly educated man, short on vocational skills perhaps, but well grounded in the liberal arts.

One thing that his education did not provide—here also one senses a parallel to Groton—was a sense of complexity and relatively. Standards were clear, fixed, and simple. Harry's schooling conspired with his moral and religious upbringing to leave him with the conviction that personal behavior, and by extension that of societies and nations, should be guided by universally understandable Victorian maxims, that distinctions between good and evil were unambiguous, that there were few gray areas in life. As with Roosevelt's education at Groton, moreover, Truman's schooling embodied the Victorian assumption that the history of mankind was a story of progress; thus it reinforced the pioneer optimism of his forebears.

It was equally consistent with his upbringing and his environment that he learned to interpret virtue in ways other than the heroic. At the age of fifteen, he wrote a short essay on courage. It began by quoting Emerson: "Behavior is the Mirror in which each man shows his image." Then it defined the topic: "The virtue I call courage is not in always facing the foe but in taking care of those at home. Courage does not always come in battle but in home communities." A man who cared for plague victims at the risk of his own life displayed courage. Robert Morris had demonstrated courage by pledging his fortune to the Americans Revolution. "A true heart, a strong mind, and a great deal of courage and I think a man will get through the world."

Truman also enjoyed poetry. Tennyson was among his favorites. Several stanzas from "Lockesley Hall" affected him so deeply that he copied them and carried them with him for the next fifty years:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,

Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonders that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,

Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bails;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rained a ghastly dew

From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue;

Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,

With the standards of the people plunging thro the thunderstorm;

Till the war-drum trobbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd

In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,

And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.

The most indelible interest that he carried away from his school days was the study of history. Like many a bookish boy and very much in tune with his times, he developed a fascination with the exploits of great men, especially soldiers and political leaders. Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer-soldier, was a special hero; so was Robert E. Lee. Unlike his mother, he eventually came to regard Lincoln as a great leader and the preservation of the Union as a good thing. But, no doubt with her encouragement, he developed a lifelong distaste for New England in all its political and cultural manifestations.

At some point, he developed a rough philosophy of history that emphasized personalities and assumed patterns. By current academic standards, his view of the historical process seems simple-minded; in an age that read Plutarch and venerated Carlyle, it appeared very much the common sense of things. "I saw that it takes men to make history, or there would be no history," he wrote after a lifetime of experience. "History does not make the man." He came to believe that while history moved generally in the direction of progress, in the course of its ups and downs, it repeated itself. "What came about in Philadelphia in 1776 really had its beginning in Hebrew times," he would assert in his memoirs. It followed that the leaders who made history move in the right direction were men who, drawing on the lessons of the past, avoided the mistakes of those who had preceded them—whether in investigating the conduct of a war, dealing with foreign aggressors, facing a modern-day witch-hunt, or handling an obstreperous general.


His mother decided that Harry should learn to play the piano. When he was eleven, he began to take lessons from Miss Emma Burrus, whose family lived next door. He displayed remarkable aptitude; after two or three years, he had learned all she could teach him. Martha then arranged for twice-a-week lessons in Kansas City with Mrs. E. C. White, who had studied with, among others, Theodor Leschetizky (a teacher of Ignacy Paderewski), Anton Rubinstein, and Josef Lhevinne. Sitting at an imposing Steinway in her big brick house at Twenty-seventh Street and Brooklyn Avenue, Harry played the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, and other greats. In 1990, when Paderewski performed in Kansas City, Mrs. White took Harry backstage to meet the maestro and learn firsthand how to execute a difficult "turn" in one of his own compositions.

In his early teens, Harry seriously aspired to a career as concert pianist, rising every day at 5:00 A.M. for two hours of practice on the family's Kimball upright before going off to school. Mrs. White considered him one of her most promising pupils. "She gave a recital once in a while and she always gave me a showy, brilliant piece to play," he told a friend fifty years later. "The mothers of her other pupils always said she played favorites with the boys—maybe she did."

It was not easy in turn-of-the-century Independence for a boy to stay with the piano, but Harry did, probably all the way through high school and afterward until he had neither the time nor the money to continue. Yet after he quit, he never looked back. "I through once I'd be an ivory tickler," he wrote to Bess Wallace in 1911, "but I am glad my money ran out before I got too far." Decades later, he simply said, "I wasn't good enough." (In company he liked, he joked, "My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician—and to tell the truth there's hardly a difference.")

He retained a lifelong love for classical music and enjoyed it openly when he was president. One senses nonetheless that his attraction to the piano as a career was always tentative. He wanted to please his mother and teacher and was happy to be recognized as the best at something. But he also wished to win the recognition of the boys who sometimes jeered at him as he walked past with his music rolls. And he wanted most of all to emulate his father. By the time he was forced to abandon his lessons, he had a clear understanding that he could not achieve all these objectives as a pianist. He may already have possessed a dim awareness that he might attain them as a politician.

Harry Truman's childhood was not that of a miserable outcast, but his thick eyeglasses amounted to a handicap of sorts in a youthful world where learning counted for less than athletic prowess. His malshaped eyeballs were not an obvious, crippling disability. Still, their impact is suggested by Truman's private remark at the age of sixty-five that they were a "deformity" and by his belief that his parents might have found a specialist who could have corrected his vision through eye exercises.

Young Harry learned to get along. Following the orders of his eye doctor and mother, he never fought, ran away when he had to, and rarely, if ever, participated in rough sports. But he was not an insufferable sissy, and he no doubt had learned very early from his egalitarian parents that it was wrong to flaunt his learning or to act superior. He naturally enough wanted to be liked and accepted, and he worked at it. Just as he tried to please his parents and teachers, he strove with some success to win over his playmates. "He just smiled his way along," his first-grade teacher, Myra Ewin recalled fifty years later.

The lesson stayed with him: "Because of my efforts to get along with my associates, I usually was able to get what I wanted. It was successful on the farm, in school, in the Army, and particularly in the Senate." What he perhaps did not fully understand, even as an old man, was the psychic cost of that mode of success. Having been taught the virtue of male aggressiveness and inner direction, as exemplified by his father, Truman found himself forced into a conciliatory, other-directed style of behavior that clashed with his ideas of what a man should be.

He had a few friends who must have been about as bookish as he—most notably Charlie Ross, the son of the local jailer, and Elmer Twyman, whose father was the family doctor. They studied Latin and literature together. Once they constructed a model of Caesar's bridge across the Rhine. Charlie edited the first school yearbook, The Gleam, named for Tennyson's "Follow the Gleam." Harry worked on the staff. Soft-faced, bespectacled, physically underdeveloped, a bit pudgy, he was never a leader in any group. He developed something of a reputation as an arbiter of disputes that might have erupted into fistfights, and he occasionally umpired baseball games for the other boys. Yet for all his goodwill, he seems to have been forced to endure more than his share of teasing and name-calling.

"I was always afraid of the girls my age and older," he remembered. The only exceptions seem to have been his sister, Mary Jane, and his first cousins, Ethel and Nellie Noland. It was a fear that must have been rooted in his sense of inadequacy and his need to expend so much energy on getting along with boys. He dealt with it through a common defense mechanism, the impossible romance. In Sunday school at the age of five, he met a little girl with golden curls and beautiful blue eyes. He fell in love at once, he recalled. Astonishingly, his devotion, although not directly expressed to her and certainly not reciprocated, lasted through his school years and beyond.

That little girls, Bess Wallace, was from one of Independence's best families. Her grandfather George P. Gates had moved to Missouri from Vermont after the Civil War, had co-founded a successful milling company, and had built a big gingerbread house at 219 North Delaware Street (just across from a more modest structure that would be occupied by Harry's cousins, the Nolands). Her father, David W. Wallace, was reputedly the handsomest man in town. Her mother, Madge Gates Wallace, had been a beauty whose likeness adorned the milling company's Queen of the Pantry flour sacks. However egalitarian their ideals, the people of Independence understood social distinctions—and felt them all the more keenly because they were at variance with the prevailing democratic myth. Young Harry had to be aware that the Wallaces belonged to a class apart. The Wallaces were established and moneyed; the Trumans were a new family of uncertain and insecure fortune. The Wallaces were Presbyterian and Episcopalian; the Trumans were Baptists.

Bess herself was attractive, intelligent, high-spirited, and athletic. She could play tennis, baseball, and the new sport of basketball better than Harry. His admiration for her must have been clear enough, but there is no indication that during their school days their relationship went beyond occasional walks home with Harry carrying her books. In high school, they frequently studied Latin together with the Noland sisters. But at social gathering in which boys and girls paired up, Harry usually escorted his cousin Ethel, whom he credited with teaching him "how to be polite." Because boys and girls did not date in the contemporary sense and because so much socializing was organized around church membership, Harry and Bess were probably only seldom at the same occasions. It is doubtful, moreover, that she took him any more seriously than did his male friends. A smart boy and nice enough, she probably felt, but not the one she would marry. Chances are that Harry understood her feelings perfectly, even as he cultivated his infatuation.

Harry's relationship with his father and brother must have gnawed at his self-esteem. Perhaps because he sensed from the beginning that Harry was his mother's favorite, Vivian became his father's boy. He was not interested in schooling, refused to take piano lessons, and liked the outdoors. Avidly adopting his father's interest in livestock trading, he practically became a junior partner. By the time he was twelve, Vivian had his own checkbook and was trading on his own account. Harry must have sensed that while his father treated him decently, he did not have a full measure of paternal respect. Perhaps in an attempt to win it, at the end of his first week at Clinton's Drugstore, he actually tried to give his earnings to his father; no doubt he was disappointed when told to save the money for himself.

Sometime during his high-school years, Harry tried to change his image. He brought fencing foils along to his Latin study sessions with the Noland sisters and Bess. During study breaks, the adolescents played at the sport on the porch. (One need not be a hard-core Freudian to discern a certain significance here.) Ethel and Nellie gave him the nickname Horatio, after Hamlet's decisive friend, and he gloried in it. After the beginning of the Spanish-American War in the summer of 1898, the neighborhood youngsters, like children all over the country, formed a drill company. They marched through the streets, camped out in the woods just north of town, elected new officers every day, and occasionally shot stray chickens with their .22 rifles. Harry began to dream about becoming a professional soldier.

During his second year of high school, he and friend, Fielding Houchens, tried to prepare for the military academies. They took special tutorials in history and geography with one of their teachers, Miss Maggie Phelps. Harry had his heart set on West Point. He gave up shortly after his graduation, when he went to the Army Recruiting Station in Kansas City and discovered that his eyesight disqualified him for a regular army commission. The experience was yet another—probably not unexpected—disappointment. (Houchens made it to the Naval Academy, only to flunk out.)

Harry Truman, Fielding Houchens, Charlie Ross, and Elmer Twyman were four of only eleven boys who graduated along with thirty girls in the Independence High School class of 1901. They all posed as a group, dressed in their Sunday best, on the front steps of the school for the class picture. Charlie, the valedictorian, sat at one end of the front row. Harry stood inconspicuously near the middle of the back row. A very pretty Bess Wallace displayed her most fetching smile two rows farther down. The stained glass over the school door bore the legend "Juventus Spes Mundi": "Youth, the Hope of the World."


John Truman was worth #30,000 or $40,000 and looked to a future without limit. Harry felt no sense of urgency about getting a job. He took a short trip to Murphysboro, Illinois, where he visited with his Aunt Ada and her family. On the way back, he stopped in St. Louis to see relatives there. They took him to the races, where he bet $5 on a long shot named Claude, a fine mud horse who ran poorly on dry tracks. A rainstorm blew in just before post time, Claude won going away, and Harry collected $125. Like his father, he was attracted to long shots; his initial experience with one was encouraging. In September, he and Cousin Ralph, recently discharged from the army, went down to Texas for a visit with Ralph's father. They traveled like hobos, grabbing rides on freight cars. Ralph had become a strapping young man—loud, rough, toughened by military life. In Dallas, Harry trailed along while Ralph and an acquaintance did the town. Whatever the activity, seventeen-year-old Harry did not participate. Years later, he wrote to Ralph, "I was damn fool about that time. If it had been a year or two later I'd had as good a time as you did. It don't take a fellow long to learn in the National Guard."

In the fall of 1901, Charlie Ross and Elmer Twyman went off to the University of Missouri. It appears that the Trumans could have afforded to send Harry to Columbia with them, although his father may have already begun to have cash problems. In those days, a university education did not seem essential for a bright young man, and Harry seems to have wanted to continue his Kansas City-based piano lessons. He enrolled in Spalding's Commercial College in downtown Kansas City, learning typing in the summer and "debit and credit and Pittman shorthand" during the fall semester. His business education, such as it was, would leave him with an understanding of the rudiments of bookkeeping; but he rarely used a typewriter and many never have employed whatever shorthand he acquired. He typically left home early in the morning with trolley fare and a quarter for lunch, attended his classes, had a piano lesson with Mrs. White (probably twice a week), and returned in the afternoon. Occasionally, he had an ice-cream soda at a downtown shop run by Jesse James, Jr.

Harry quit Spalding after only one semester and began to work with his father and Vivian in the family business, most likely keeping the books while the other two did the trading. He may have left business school as quickly as he did because the family was already experiencing financial difficulties. (In March 1902, they raised money by selling the 160 acres that Sol Young had left Martha.) His father was making large—and disastrous—commitments to grain-futures contracts. By midsummer 1902, the family's losses were massive and irreversible.

There was nothing to do but sell every asset. Harry and his father took the train down to Thayer, just a mile or so from the Arkansas line, to inspect forty acres of land that John had acquired sight unseen. Renting a buggy and team of horses, they took a twisting road some eight miles along the Eleven Point River, which was raging along at flood stage. At what must have been considerable risk, they forded the river thirteen times. As Harry remembered it fifty years later, the property ran up the side of a mountain and "was more perpendicular than horizontal."

After John Truman returned to Independence, he sold the livestock, the remaining forty acres near Grandview, and, in September 1902, the big house on Waldo Street. The family rented a residence at 902 North Liberty Street, but stayed there for only a few months. In April 1903, they moved to Kansas City, purchasing a two-story house at 2108 Park Avenue. The neighborhood immediately to the south was a respectable one with some fine homes, but the Truman residence was modest. John still liked to think of himself as a livestock dealer, but he had to settle for a job as night watchman. Still a tough, feisty man, he seems never to have recovered his self-confidence. The reversal at a critical stage of Harry's life. He would spend much of his young adulthood seeking the sort of business success that had eluded his father and would become increasingly touchy about any disparagement of his family.


"It took all I received to help pay family expenses and keep my brother and sister in school," Truman recalled of those hard times. In August 1902, he took a mailroom job for $7 a week at the Kansas City Star. Two weeks later, he found better-paying work. His bookkeeping class and good reputation landed him the position of timekeeper for the L.J. Smith Company, a railroad construction firm doing a project for the Santa Fe line. The pay was $35 a month and board. Because John had not yet gotten his night watchman's job, Harry's was probably the Truman family's only regular income at that time.

Driving a hand-propelled "tricycle car," Harry, just eighteen, moved between three construction camps about five miles apart and recorded job attendance for each member of the crew. A few of the workmen were farmers using their teams and wagons to make some extra money; others were semiskilled specialists such as blacksmiths and cooks. The manual laborers were hobos who worked a ten-hour day for 15 cents an hour. Every two weeks, Harry paid them off in some saloon; most of them promptly spent every penny on a weekend drunk. Eating and living in the camps, he discovered what alcohol could do to men and learned, he recalled, "all the cuss words in the English language, not by ear, but by note." He remembered with pride a foreman's assessment of him: "He's all right from his asshole out in every direction."

The construction project concluded toward the end of February 1903. Harry spent the next several weeks at home. helping with business matters and assisting in his parent's move to Kansas City. Shortly before his nineteenth birthday, the National Bank of Commerce hired him as a clerk at $35 a month. That June, after leaving high school (he seems never to have graduated), Vivian also got a job at Commerce, at $15 a month.

In his later years, Harry had nothing but bad memories of the bank and its management, remembering especially the way in which the vice president in charge of personnel, C.H. Moore,delighted in dressing down clerks who made mistakes. But Moore never had much cause for complaint with Harry, who after six months was put in charge of the bank's filing vault. The job was an important one. The reports from A.D. Flintom, an intermediate supervisor, were uniformly glowing:

October 13, 1903

Is an excellent boy—does his work well—is king and obliging....

Habits and appearance good.

April 14, 1904

He is an exceptionally bright young man and is keeping the work up

in the vault better than it has ever been kept....almost always here and

tries hard to please everybody. We never had a boy in the vault like him


Vivian did not fare so well. Paid a miserable salary and given routine work in an environment alien to his temperament, he periodically rebelled. A few months after starting, he demanded a salary increase and stalked out of the bank when refused. Two days later—no doubt after being told by his mother, his father, and possibly Harry that the family had to settle for what it could get—he returned and was reinstated. Flintom judiciously evaluated the younger boy:

He writes a miserable hand, but is a good worker and a good collector.

His appearance is good and he is seldom absent from duty and his habits

are also good. He appears to be without ambition....At times he is anxious

to work...and at other times he will sulk....I don't think the boy will

ever make a success as a bank clerk.

After two years, Harry had managed a raise to $40 a month. "If a man got an additional five dollars on his monthly pay, he was a go-getter," Truman recalled forty years later, "because he had out-talked the bawler-out and had taken something from the tightest-was bank president on record." In March 1905, his parents, with whom he and Vivian continued to live, traded their house in Kansas City for eighty acres near Clinton, Missouri. Both Harry and Vivian quit their jobs, helped with the move, and may have expected to stay and help run the new farm. By the beginning of April, however, they were back at Commerce Bank, applying for and receiving their old jobs.

Neither stayed long. After six weeks, Harry quit to take a similar job at Union National Bank. As he recalled it, the starting pay was $60 a month, and he soon had won a raise to $100 a month, very good money for a bank clerk in those days. In July, Vivian left for a job at the First National Bank. Harry recalled the supervisors on his new job as kind and sympathetic. He made friends easily; on occasion, he would take some of them out to his grandmother's farm for a country dinner followed by a horseback tour of the property.


Harry found it good life. Kansas City was a rough, rollicking, wide-open river town, but it seems unlikely that he sampled its opportunities for sin. Save for an occasional burlesque show, his fun was of the innocent variety. After his parents moved to Clinton, he stayed briefly with his father's sister, Emma (Mrs. Rochester Colgan), on Twenty-ninth Street, and then moved into a boardinghouse run by Mrs. Trow at 1314 Troost Avenue. The guests lived two to a room, paying $5 a week for bed, breakfast, and dinner. Harry customarily purchased a 10-cent box lunch at a shop on East Eighth Street. One of his fellow boarders, a young man named Arthur Eisenhower from Abilene, Kansas, worked at Commerce Bank while Harry was still there; he recalled that he and Harry had about $1 a week for riotous living. (Arthur stayed at Commerce Bank, becoming a senior executive before his retirement at about the time his brother Dwight succeeded Harry as president of the United States.)

Life was comfortable and civilized. Harry from time to time played Mrs. Trow's piano for two young ladies who lived in the house. As his income increased, he and his friends enjoyed occasional evenings at one of the city's steak houses. On many weekends, he went to Clinton to see his parents or out to Grandview to see his grandmother and Uncle Harrison.

He was capable of cruel practical jokes. He and his cousin Mary Colgan tricked her brother Fred and a fellow bank clerk into believing that a note they had put in a bottle and tossed into the Blue River had been retrieved by a southern belle in Mississippi. Weeks of correspondence followed, culminating with the young lady's declaration that she had fallen in love with them. At a party, Mary produced the young men's letters, sent back to her by a friend who had provided a mailing address in Greenville, Mississippi. she read them aloud. A grinning Harry announced that the had dictated the imaginary belle's epistles and Cousin Mary had written them.

Harry likely attended services at the Benton Boulevard Baptist Church fairly regularly. It was there that he felt a sense of salvation, was baptized, and was accepted as a member. The Trumans probably had not attended church regularly in Independence, and Harry's own attendance eventually became infrequent. Nevertheless, the Baptist faith meant a great deal to him, however much in his subsequent years he would ignore its prohibitions against liquor, cards, and swearing. He found intellectual solace in being a member of a faith that allowed the common man direct access to God. The lines of church authority ran from the bottom up; the worship services were simple and unpretentious. The Bible also had great importance for him; throughout his life, he prayed when he needed guidance. Fundamentally a tolerant man, he nevertheless always retained just a bit of distrust for Catholics and Jews.

In 1905, soon after his twenty-first birthday, he and some friends from the bank joined a new National Guard artillery battery, commanded by Captain George R. Collins. For Truman, the move was a matter of patriotism and a modest fulfillment of his military aspirations. It was also a way of making connections with other ambitious young men like himself and getting to know senior notables like Collins. The officers took their duties seriously, and many had military backgrounds. However, no one entered the command ranks without some political attachments. Harry soon discovered that not everyone in his family was thrilled about his decision. Shortly after signing up, he made the mistake of wearing his dress blues with red striping down the legs—ominously similar to the garb of Jim Lane's men—out to Grandview to display to Grandmother Young: "She looked me over and I knew I was going to catch it. She said, `Harry, this is the first time since 1863 that a blue uniform had been in this house. Don't bring it here again.' I didn't."

He found the Guard experience, especially summer training camp, exhilarating. It provided a sense of comradeship, shared effort, and achievement. He liked to recall how the men would sing on the way to and from camp, how they had learned to drill and to fire light artillery pieces, how they occasionally harassed unpopular officers. He met some important associates, among them lieutenant Fred Boxley, a prominent attorney with political and military connections, and one of the sergeants, an overweight bank clerk named Arthur Elliott. He was soon promoted to corporal and made battery clerk. The thrill of that first promotion, he later felt, was never surpassed, not even when he received a captaincy signed by Woodrow Wilson himself. Once he was awestruck when Captain Collins asked him for help in removing his boots.

Still, he kept his sense of humor. One evening in 1906 or 1907, he signed up a new recruit, a young English immigrant and veteran of the Grenadier Guards, Ted Marks. Marks always remembered Truman asking him how long he had been in the country. "Six months," Marks had replied. "You speak pretty good English for someone who's only been in the United States for six months," Truman remarked with a straight face.

His favorite civilian diversion was the theater. On Saturdays, he worked as an usher at one of the vaudeville houses, where he saw all the famous acts of the era, including the Four Cohans, Eddie Foy, and Sarah Bernhardt. He attended grand opera, performances by famous pianists, Shakespeare plays, contemporary dramas, and light musicals. He recalled such experiences with a special fondness decades later.

Only one thing seems to have been missing from a generally satisfactory existence. If Truman had anything approaching a serious relationship with a young woman, it is lost to history. He still frequently escorted Cousin Ethel, but they apparently never allowed their relationship to go beyond a mutual fondness. In a reminiscence written around 1920, he described one of the female boarders at Mrs. Trow's house "that we all thought a great deal of," a pleasant, nice-looking schoolteacher named Cosby Bailey. Perhaps he was attached to her; clearly, he enjoyed her companionship, but his passing mention of her leaves the impression that he did so in the company of the other boarders. Some people vaguely remembered that he was interested for a time in someone else, but no evidence survives. He rarely, if ever, encountered Bess Wallace in Independence.

Bess's own life had been blighted by an unmentionable personal tragedy. Shortly after Harry had started to work at Commerce Bank in mid-1903, her father, suffering (according to some memories) from throat cancer and deeply in debt, sat down in the bathtub shortly before dawn one morning, put a pistol to his head, and killed himself. Madge Wallace took the children to Colorado for a year, and then returned to Independence and moved into her father's big house on North Delaware Street. Bess attended day classes at a finishing school in Kansas City for the next two years, graduating in 1906 and staying with her mother, who suffered from chronic health problems. A succession of beaux courted Bess, but Harry was not prominent among them, quite probably not among them at all.

That he thought and dreamed about her her seems certain. It is less clear why he did not after a time give up and begin to take a practical survey of more available women. Of course, he lived in an age in which men tended to marry later in life than they do today, and was of a culture in which male-female relationships tended to be stilted and uneasy. Moreover, he undoubtedly continued to harbor within himself the exaggerated fear of the opposite sex that had possessed him as a child; he still coped with it by fixating on an unobtainable love.


Whatever his difficulties in relating to women, Truman had done well for himself in other ways. He had many friends, had begun to establish a banking career, and enjoyed the cultural variety of city life. Remarkably, he decided to give it up.

His parents had stayed in Clinton for only a year. Bad luck had followed them; John Truman had grown a fine crop of corn, only to see the Grand River spill over its banks and wipe it out. In October 1905, at Grandmother Young's request, John Martha, and daughter Mary Jane moved back to Grandview to take over the management of the farm from Uncle Harrison, who preferred the high life of the city to agricultural drudgery. They asked Harry and Vivian to come and help. Vivian left the First National Bank sometime in late 1905 or early 1906. Harry agreed to quit his job in mid-1906.

Why did he do it? Years later, he said that he had grown tired of looking at rows of figures. Perhaps he appreciated that his family was in line to inherit the prime spread and that someday part of it would be his. Perhaps he simply felt a sense of responsibility. Surely, he was reluctant to let his father down. The passage of time between his parent's move to Grandview and his resignation at the bank suggests that the decision was difficult.

One thing is certain. Like many a twenty-two-year-old, he had not yet established a firm sense of purpose in his life. Lacking competing ties to a wife or fiance, not absolutely determined to be a banker, and possibly sensing an occasion to prove his masculinity, he found it easy enough to accede to his father's call and shift from one tentatively established life pattern to another. What he could not have foreseen was a future of eleven years of hard, unrewarding labor.

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Table of Contents

1 "I Was Kind of a Sissy": In Search of Self, 1884-1906 3
2 "I Tried to Dig a Living Out of the Ground": J. A. Truman & Son, Farmers, 1906-1914 25
3 "My Ship's Going to Come in Yet": Misadventures in Venture Capitalism, 1915-1917 43
4 "Our Young Man Was a True Patriot": The Forge of War, 1917-1919 57
5 "June 28, 1920 One Happy Year... June 28, 1922 Broke and in a Bad Way": Family, Fraternity, and Commerce in the 1920s 83
6 "I Became a Member of a Fighting County Court": The Darwinian World of Jackson County Politics, 1922 101
7 "McElroy and I Ran the County Court and Took All the Jobs": Ideals and Realities, 1923-1924 115
8 "Enough Left for a Living": Family, Business, Service, 1925-1934 132
9 "Am I an Ethical Giant... Or Just a Crook?": Achievement and Doubt, 1926-1934 145
10 "A Tremendous Amount of Strain": Crisis and Anxiety, 1931-1934 161
11 "I Have Come to the Place Where All Men Strive to Be": Questing for the Heights, 1931-1934 177
12 "Wisdom to Serve the People Acceptably": Life in the Senate, 1935-1940 200
13 "Vultures at the Death of an Elephant": Insurgency, New Dealism, Interest Group Politics, and the Regulatory State, 1935-1940 213
14 "I'm Going to Lick that Double-Crossing, Lying Governor": Struggle for Vindication, 1937-1940 228
15 "We Saved the Taxpayers About Fifteen Billion Dollars": The Truman Committee, 1941-1944 248
16 "Looks Like I've Arrived in the Senate": Statesman and Democratic Leader, 1941-1944 261
17 "Bob, It's Truman. F.D.R.": The Vice Presidency, 1944-1945 274
18 "I Feel Like I Have Been Struck by a Bolt of Lightning": Confronting the Presidency, 1945-1947 293
19 "I Am Here to Make Decisions": Potsdam and Hiroshima, 1945 312
20 "I'm Tired Babying the Soviets": The Cold War Emerges, 1945-1946 338
21 "Being President Is Like Riding a Tiger": The Trials of Liberalism in a Conservative Age, 1945-1946 361
22 "We Must Assist Free Peoples": The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, 1947-1948 387
23 "A Discouraging Prospect Indeed": The Palestine Controversy and the Birth of Israel, 1945-1948 404
24 "Congress Meets - Too Bad Too": Politics, Policy, and the Eightieth Congress, 1947-1948 418
25 "He Done His Damndest": The Precampaign Campaign of 1948 439
26 "I'll Give 'Em Hell": The Campaign of 1948 452
27 "The Great White Sepulcher of Ambition": Living with the Presidency, 1945-1953 467
28 "A Fair Deal": Liberalism and the Web of Government, 1949-1950 488
29 "A Period that Will Be Eventful, Perhaps Decisive": Triumph and Travail in Foreign Relations, January 1949-June 1950 509
30 "We've Got to Stop the Sons of Bitches": Korea: The Downward Spiral Begins, June 25, 1950-April 11, 1951 534
31 "It Isn't Polls or Public Opinion Alone of the Moment that Counts. It Is Right and Wrong, and Leadership": Fighting the Tide, 1951-1952 557
32 "This Is No Time to Yield to Selfish Interests": Economic Mobilization and Corruption, 1951-1952 575
33 "I Have Served My Country Long, and I Think Efficiently and Honestly": Going Out, 1952 599
34 "I Took the Grips Up to the Attic": Old Harry, 1953-1972 619
Epilogue: Who He Was, What He Did, and Why We Care 635
Notes 643
Bibliographic Essay 719
Index 725
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