Harry S Truman – a brief summary

From Missouri farming stock, Harry S. Truman was at one time the least popular US president on record, yet is now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s more successful leaders. Truman never went to university, the last US President not to have done so. Nonetheless he was a widely read and largely self-taught man, modest in his demeanour and habits.

Harry S TrumanThe ‘S’ in Harry S Truman actually stood for nothing, for he had no middle name, but, following the example of Franklin D Roosevelt (D for Delano), Truman felt the additional S gave his name a degree of gravitas or respectability.

After a series of menial jobs and work on his father’s farm, Harry S Truman went to the Western Front in the First World War as a member of the Missouri National Guard. He had cheated his way through the sight test, so anxious was he to go. The war brought out the leader in Truman, who was a popular and successful artillery officer.


In 1919 he married Bess Wallace, also from Missouri. Various business ventures came to nothing and the Trumans fell into debt. It was only through the sponsorship of a local contact that Truman found his niche in public office. Tom Pendergast, a wealthy ‘fixer’ for the Democratic Party, was to secure Truman’s nomination for minor elected roles and, in 1934, as a senator for the state. By this time he had become a keen advocate of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, befriending the President’s close advisor Harry Hopkins.

Vice President

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John Wilkes Booth – a summary

Even before he became famous as the first man to assassinate a United States president, John Wilkes Booth was a well-known name. Born into one of the most famous acting families in America, Booth was the ninth of ten children of Junius Brutus Booth. Booth was born in Bel Air, Maryland. His mother was Mary Ann Holmes, his father’s mistress until 10 May 1851 when they were married.

John Wilkes BoothBooth and his brother Edwin were athletic young men who loved fencing and horses. Booth attended Bel Air Academy for a time, but was described as an ‘indifferent’ student. He later attended Saint Timothy Academy, an Episcopal military academy, where he studied the classical arts.

Booth’s father died when Booth was fourteen. At sixteen, he began to take an interest in the stage and in politics, on 14 August 1855, aged seventeen, he made his stage debut in Baltimore, Maryland.

Leading Man

John Wilkes Booth was often described as handsome and athletic. By the time the American Civil War broke out, he was earning as much as $20,000 a year, a sum equal to about half a million dollars today. During the war, he performed primarily in the Union and in the border states. When Booth T. Ford reopened his theatre in Washington, DC, in 1863, Booth was one of the first leading men to appear there in a play entitled The Marble Heart. Sitting in a box seat just above the stage was President Abraham Lincoln. Booth’s final appearance at Ford’s would be 18 March 1865 in a play entitled The Apostle.

While his acting career and fame grew, Booth’s political views did as well. He was so strongly opposed to abolition that he joined the Richmond Grays, a 1,500-man volunteer militia group that traveled to Charlestown, Virginia, (now West Virginia) in order to guard the hanging of John Brown on 2 December 1859 and prevent any rescue attempts.

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Abraham Lincoln: History In An Hour

LincolnAbraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, is an American icon. To many, he is a symbol of values, sacrifice and determination. Modern notions of nationalism, liberty, and constitution all owe their debt to Lincoln, as does the unity of the American states. And yet, in his own day, Lincoln was also reviled by many as a traitor, tarnished by his associations with the wrong kind of race and the wrong end of society.

Charting his ascent from humble origins to the leader of the United States during its hardest democratic and ethical conflict – the American Civil War – ‘Lincoln: History in an Hour’ is a succinct guide to the life of a great and controversial modernizer. Having educated himself and made good as a lawyer, he embarked on a journey that would see triumph in the abolition of slavery and then tragedy in the final drama of his own assassination. From his struggles as President to his family life and roles as husband, father and friend, this, by Kat Smutz, is the story of one of history’s greatest leaders.

This, in an hour, is Abraham Lincoln…

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Also available as an audio download.


The Roots of Leadership
The Railsplitter and Honest Abe
From Childhood to Manhood
A Politician is Born
Life, Love and Marriage
The Politics of Slavery
The Birth of a Political Party
Life in the White House
The Politics of War
A Presidential War
Re-election and Political Maneuvring
The War Is Won
A New Beginning and a Tragic End
Assassins and Conspiracies
The Failure of Reconstruction
The Lincoln Legacy


Dwight Eisenhower – a summary

Born in Texas into a family of German immigrant pacifists, Dwight Eisenhower, the third of seven boys, was brought up in Kansas. He attended the West Point Military Academy, graduating in 1915. Although he rose to the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel during the First World War, during which he spent most of his time training tank crews, he never saw any action; a drawback, as he saw it, that caused him embarrassment and was later used against him.

Dwight D EisenhowerAfter the war Eisenhower continued to work in the tank arm, befriending George Patton and sharing his views on the importance of mobility. While stationed in France, he wrote a guide to the battlefields of the Great War, as it was still known.


From 1933 he worked with General Douglas MacArthur, moving with him to the Philippines in 1935, where he stayed until 1939. More senior staff work ensued and in 1941 he was made Brigadier General. When the USA entered the Second World War Eisenhower worked in the War Plans Office, which he eventually headed.

Despite his lack of frontline experience he was made US Theater Commander in Europe in June 1942. As such, he had overall command of the Torch landings in North Africa in November, and thereafter the Anglo-American armies which invaded Italy. In December 1943 he became Supreme Allied Commander for Europe – a role in which his deft political skills were more important than his military ones. Somehow he managed to operate successfully between such egos as Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Patton and Bernard Montgomery. He emerged from the war a full five star General, highly regarded by all sides.

Following the liberation of Nazi-occupied France, Eisenhower favoured a ‘broad thrust’ into Germany rather than the quicker but riskier narrow front favoured by Montgomery.

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George Washington – early life

George Washington, the first president of the US, was born on 22 February 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia, where his father, Augustine, was a leading planter in the area. Augustine’s first wife died in 1729, leaving him two sons, Lawrence and Augustine, Jr., and a daughter, Jane. Augustine, Sr. soon married Mary Ball and had six children, George being the eldest. Washington’s mother was wealthy in her own right, and by all accounts, a demanding, self-centered and formidable woman. In addition to inheriting her strong health and disposition to endure great hardships, George most likely inherited her temper, which he struggled his whole life to control.

George WashingtonBy 1738, the family had moved to a plantation near Fredericksburg, Virginia where George spent much of his youth. However, this period remains the least documented and understood part of his life. Many of the widely accepted fables of George’s youthful physical strength, honesty, and piety stem from Washington’s first biographer, “Parson” Weems.


The education of a son of a wealthy planter normally included (as it did his older half-brothers) English grammar and arithmetic. Adolescent years would have included instruction in geometry, geography, booking keeping and surveying, culminating in a year or two studying abroad in England. Unfortunately, when George reached the age of eleven, his father died, and George’s formal education ended. From what little we do know of his education, Washington excelled in mathematics and surveying. As George grew into his teens, he found it increasingly difficult to tolerate his domineering mother, so he spent most of his time away from home by actively pursuing the study of surveying or spending a large part of his time with his step-brothers, especially Lawrence.

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Mary Todd Lincoln – a summary

Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln had four children – all but one predeceased Mary. But before meeting Mary Todd, Lincoln was almost engaged to another Mary. Among Lincoln’s papers can be found three letters written to Mary Owens.  Mary was the daughter of Nathanial Owens, a plantation owner from Green County, Kentucky.  She had a sister who lived in New Salem, Illinois, and Mary paid a visit there in 1833.

Mary Owens – ‘in want of teeth’

Abraham LincolnAbraham Lincoln had met Mary during that visit in 1833, and when her sister planned a trip home three years later, she posed a question for Lincoln.  She asked him if he would marry her sister, Mary, if she came home with her.  Lincoln, in jest, said that he would.  He regretted his words when Mary Owens arrived in Springfield as a woman engaged to be married—to Abraham Lincoln.

Not only was Lincoln shocked that he had been taken seriously, the Mary Owens of 1836 was not the same woman he recalled from 1833.  In a letter to a friend, he described her as ‘…over-sized, weather beaten, and in want of teeth.’  However, Lincoln had given his word that he would marry the woman and determined that he would find some good in her.  He decided that she was intelligent and had a handsome face, if not pretty.

Nonetheless, he wrote three letters to her discouraging the marriage.  In the last, dated 7 May 1837, he tells her that he is unhappy living in Springfield, Illinois and discourages her from moving there.  He tells her that he cannot provide the kind of life she was accustomed to and that the hardship such a life would bring would make her unhappy.  He concluded by telling her, ‘If it suits you best not to answer this, farewell – a long life and a merry one to you.’  She didn’t answer – it was the last of their correspondence.

Mary Ann Todd

Mary Todd LincolnLincoln seemed destined to marry above the station into which he had been born.  In 1839, a young woman named Mary Ann Todd moved to Springfield.  Her father was a slaveholder named Robert S. Todd of Lexington, Kentucky.  Mary’s mother, Eliza Parker Todd, had died and Mary did not get along with her new stepmother, Elizabeth Humphries Todd.  Mary had come to live with her sister, Elizabeth Edwards, one of six siblings.  Her father and Elizabeth had nine more children together.

(Picture: Mary Todd Lincoln in about 1846, photograph taken by Mathew Brady).

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The Inauguration of John F Kennedy

On 20 January 1961, despite deep snow and plunging temperatures, as many as 20,000 people converged on Capitol Hill in Washington, all eager to bear witness to history in the making – the inauguration of John F Kennedy, the 35th President of the Unites States.

The American Camelot

John F KennedyTo all those huddled against the biting cold, and many millions besides, John Fitzgerald Kennedy represented all that was new and exciting about their country.  JFK and Jackie (who had given birth to the couple’s first son, John Jr, just two months previously) brought glamour, refinement and culture to the White House that had become sober and dull under the grandfatherly President Dwight D Eisenhower.  For many, Kennedy’s inauguration heralded a bright new dawn for American politics. At just 43 years of age, he was the youngest man ever to be elected President.  He was also the first Roman Catholic. With youth, charisma and widespread popularity on his side, the future seemed bright.

In fact, so intertwined was Kennedy to this sense of national well-being that his time in office became known as the American Camelot.

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The Assassination of John F Kennedy – a summary

It’s become a cliche but people who remember John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, can usually say exactly what they were doing when they first heard the shocking news. It was a defining moment of the second half of the twentieth century.

On 21 November 1963, President Kennedy, accompanied by the First Lady, travelled to Texas, where he was scheduled to make a number of appearances in a bid to drum up support for the Democratic Party prior to the 1964 general election.

Not everyone, however, was convinced of the wisdom of such a journey. Some White House officials, worried that the President would receive a hostile reception from voters in what was a staunchly Republican State, advised against it.  But characteristically, Kennedy rebuffed their concerns, insisting that a trip to ‘nut country’ was necessary. He reportedly said to Jackie: ‘if somebody wants to shoot me, […] nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?’

22 November 1963

The following day, 22 November 1963, at 12.30pm, President Kennedy was travelling in an open top car through the streets of Dallas when three loud rifle shots rang through the air, apparently shot from the sixth floor of the nearby Book Depository building. According to official reports, the first of these bullets missed its mark, while the second penetrated the back of the President’s neck. Kennedy’s steel-boned back brace which he wore to alleviate his constant pain held Kennedy in a upright position, despite his wound – allowing the final, fatal shot to strike the back of his head. (Pictured, President Kennedy with the First Lady, shortly before his assassination, 22 November 1963. Click on image to enlarge).

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The Gettysburg Address – a summary

The Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1 – 3 July 1863, was the biggest battle of the American Civil War, in American history, and indeed in the western hemisphere. At the end of it, Union forces, led by General George Meade, emerged victorious but in doing so paid a heavy price – 23,000 men killed or wounded, while the forces of the Confederacy, led by General Robert E Lee, had lost over 28,000 men, killed or wounded, and were forced into retreat. Most of the dead lay in shallow graves; many not buried at all.

Of these 51,000 men, 7,963 Americans lost their lives during the three days of battle at Gettysburg.

‘A few appropriate remarks’

Shortly after the battle, seventeen acres of land were purchased to establish the Soldiers’ National Cemetery of Gettysburg where the Union dead were moved from their shallow graves to more honorable places of rest. The mammoth task of reinterment was only half done when, four and a half months after the battle, the new cemetery was dedicated on Thursday, 19 November 1863. The principle speech, lasting over two hours, was delivered by the former US secretary of state, Edward Everett. Following Everett, came the President, Abraham Lincoln, invited as an afterthought to deliver ‘a few appropriate remarks’, or, as listed in the program for the event, ‘Dedicatory Remarks’.

Lincoln’s speech, in contrast to Everett’s marathon, consisted of only ten sentences, 272 words, and lasted barely two minutes. In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln summarized the principles of human equality as declared in the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”), and expressed the Civil War in terms of a struggle for “a new birth of freedom”.

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Joseph Patrick Kennedy – father to Jack

Joseph Patrick Kennedy, father to future US president, John F Kennedy, was born on Boston, Massachusetts on 6 September 1888.  He was the eldest child and only surviving son of prominent Boston-Irish businessman and politician, PJ Kennedy, and his wife, Mary Hickey.  Having received his early education at the Catholic Xaverian School, Joe transferred to the prestigious Boston Latin School at the age of thirteen.  Despite an uninspiring academic record, he was accepted to Harvard in 1908 and graduated in 1912.


Highly ambitious from an early age, Joe began his career at the Columbia Trust Company, a banking institution which was controlled by his father. The young man’s exceptional business acumen came to the fore a few years later when Columbia, Boston’s sole Irish-owned bank, became the target of a hostile takeover bid by one of its rivals.  Recognising that the only way to fend off the takeover threat was to offer Columbia’s shareholders a better deal, Kennedy set about raising enough finance to do so.  His success in this endeavour saw him becoming, at the age of twenty-five, the country’s youngest ever bank president.

In October 1914, Joe married his long-time sweetheart, Rose Fitzgerald, the daughter of another prominent Boston-Irish politician.  The couple would go on to have nine children, four boys and five girls.

Meanwhile, his business career continued apace.  During World War One, Joe worked as an assistant manager at a major shipyard, supervising the production of warships and other equipment critical to the war effort.  He later branched out into stock market trading, and avoided catastrophe by cashing in his investments before the Wall Street Crash of 1929.  Having succeeded in his stated aim of becoming a millionaire by the time he was thirty-five, Kennedy’s later business ventures, which included whiskey importation and movie production, only added to his growing fortune.

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