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Garfield, President James A. and daughter. 1865. (Brady-Handy Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress). Theodore Roosevelt holding granddaughter. 1919. (Prints & Photographs division, Library of Congress).

Presidents as Parents: Family Activities for Presidents’ Day

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This post was written by Sarah Peet, Educational Programs Specialist at the Library of Congress.

Did you know that the Library of Congress has the papers of twenty-three presidents in its collections? Since this blog is intended to be shared with younger audiences, I decided to dive in and see what I could find related to Presidents’ children and families this year for Presidents’ Day.

Two presidents in our collection stood out as devoted fathers: James A. Garfield and Theodore Roosevelt.  In this post, I’ll share some of my favorite child-friendly finds in their collections—as well as activities you can do with your own families at home.

James A. Garfield

A black and white photograph of a bearded man in a suit and hat.
James Abram Garfield, Pres. U.S., c.1880. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress).

President James A. Garfield was the twentieth president (and my personal favorite). Born in 1831, his life is a great example of a “rags to riches” story. As the following selections of his letters and diary entries reveal here, he paid for his education by working as a carpenter, teacher, on a canal boat, in a quarry and in various other odd jobs. As this chronology shows, in 1857 he became the principal of a college. He later entered politics and served in the Union army during the Civil War. James and his wife Lucretia, photographed here, had seven children, five of whom lived until adulthood.

James Garfield wrote in his diary often from the age of 16 until his death. As the diary entries show, in addition to regular entries, he drew sketches, wrote poems, wrote love letters to his wife, and made ciphers.

A black and white photo of a man in profile sitting in a chair. A little girl in a white dress leans against him and they are reading a big book together.
President James A. Garfield & daughter. 1860. (Brady-Handy Collection, Prints & Photograph Division, Library of Congress).

In 1876, while Garfield was a Member of Congress, he left Lucretia and their children in Washington D.C. while he traveled through the northeastern United States. He used his journey as a geography lesson for his family, as evidenced the letter below. Continue scrolling to participate in the lesson yourself.

Two pages of a hand written letter.
James A. Garfield-Lucretia R. Garfield Correspondence, March 10, 1876. (James A. Garfield Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress).

With your family, you can turn Garfield’s letter into your own learning activity. Look at this map from 1875 from the Library’s Geography and Map Division (you may download the map at the link, but viewing it online will give you a more powerful zoom!)

A multi-colored map of the United states bordered by decorative illustrations.
Centennial American Republic and railroad map of the United States and of the Dominion of Canada.1875. (Geography and Map Division,. Library of Congress).

Then, print out Garfield’s letter—and the transcription, if needed. Work with the children in your life to try and answer the questions Garfield posed. Garfield wrote:

I wish you would tell the boys and Mollie to learn a Geography lesson for me, so that when I come home, they may recite it. I will put down some of the questions here, for them to answer—when we meet—

  1. What state did papa cross and enter after he left Washington, & before he returned?
  2. What rivers and bays did he cross and see?
  3. What cities and large towns did he visit?
  4. Find on the map the following places: Baltimore, Philadelphia, Trenton, Jersey City, New York, Springfield, Brattleboro, Keene, Bellows Falls, Claremont, Hanover, Concord, Nashua, Milford, Farmington, Exeter & Boston.
  5. Near what lake is Farmington N.H.? and near what Mountains?
  6. Between what states & cities, & across what river (on the ice) did papa ride in a sleigh on Monday last?”

How did you fare at answering Garfield’s questions?

If you want to extend your children’s learning, check out By the People, a volunteer-supported community transcription project. Volunteers—which could include your family—are currently working on: “To Be Preserved”: The Correspondence of James A. Garfield.

Theodore Roosevelt

A photo of a laughing man in a suit and round glasses.
Theodore Roosevelt laughing. 1910. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress).

President Theodore Roosevelt  is another president whose correspondence showed the value he placed on parenthood. He was the twenty-sixth president and the youngest president at the age of 42 when he took office in 1901, as this timeline reveals. He had six children, five of whom are photographed with him and his second wife, Edith, below (their sixth was born the year after this image was captured).

A sepia-toned photograph of the Roosevelt family. There are two adults and five children.
Theodore Roosevelt and family. “From a father of five to a father of five”/ Gilbert Studios.1894. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress).

The Library of Congress’ collections feature not only the Roosevelt children, but their presidential pets as well. They had a one-legged pet rooster named Baron Sprecklerabbits, dogs and lots of horses. When Roosevelt’s son Archie had measles, employees at the White House arranged for his pony to be taken on the elevator and brought to the boy’s sickroom. The newspaper article below captures this story:

A newspaper article.
Roosevelt’s Son Pleased. Columbia Courier, May 1, 1903. (Chronicling America, Library of Congress).

Read this article out loud with your family and invite them to imagine this moment, perhaps using the photograph below as inspiration. Can you imagine taking this horse on an elevator ride in The White House?

A sepia-toned photograph of a young boy in a sailor suit sitting on a small pony.
Archie Roosevelt on pony, “Algonquin”. 1902. (Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection, Prints and Photograph Division, Library of Congress).

President Roosevelt’s papers in the Library of Congress also include a picture letter sent to his children when they were not old enough to read—a great resource for a family activity. You can print out the following letters and cut out the illustrations. Then, ask your children to piece together the story without the words.

A letter with sketches of a goat and a horse meeting and running from a bear.
Letter with illustrated fable, Theodore Roosevelt to Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., 11 July 1890. (Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress).

The story reads:

A pony and a cow go out to see the world
They meet a bear and are much frightened
He chases them back just as hard as they can run
And when they get home in safety they make up their minds  they will never run away again.

As an alternative activity, you can share the words of the illustrated fable with your children. How would they illustrate this story? What do they think is the deeper meaning behind this story?

It is fun to see the private sides of public figures’ lives. Besides being presidents, they were janitors, ranchers, farmers, soldiers, poets, and doodlers. Some of them held the most important roles: parents. This Presidents’ Day, introduce two new presidents to your children through these relatable roles in their lives.

Additional Resources:

  • Watch a video of author Candice Miller discussing her book on the life of President James Garfield.
  • Watch a video of author Rick Marshall discussing his book exploring the life of President Theodore Roosevelt as told through political cartoons.
  • Watch a video of Gerard W. Gawalt and Ann G. Gawalt discussing their book about letters between presidents and their daughters.

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