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The Person Behind the Presidency: Humanizing History

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What do you think of when you think of the President of the United States of America? Do you think of the White House? Of the inauguration ceremony and celebrations? Of the State of the Union Address in the House chamber? Of the song “Hail to the Chief”? Do you also think of the President as a parent? As someone who experiences great joy and great sorrow? We are fortunate that most presidents have left us their personal papers where we can read about their feelings, their concerns and their love for family and friends.

Though the National Archives of the United States oversees the presidential libraries that hold the papers and memorabilia of the most recent presidents, the Library of Congress holds the papers of 23 presidents including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt Diary 2/14/1884

Roosevelt’s papers include some wonderful items that help readers understand Roosevelt as a person. One 1880 entry from his diary documents his love for his first wife Alice. In an entry dated Valentine’s Day 1884, Roosevelt expresses in a single sentence the pain of losing his mother and, only a few hours later, losing Alice after childbirth. He describes this tragic sequence of events in the diary’s next entry, dated February 16-17.

Two years later, Roosevelt married Edith Kermit Carow and they had five children. While in Washington, D.C. serving as a member of the United States Civil Service Commission, Roosevelt sent a letter to his then three-year-old son Theodore, Jr. This letter shows the devoted father who draws pictures to illustrate a fable for his son who is not yet able to read.

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to his son

The collection Words and Deeds provides links to a number of personal letters from the Library’s collections of presidential papers.

Teachers may want to have students:

  • Brainstorm a list of words they think of when they think about the President of the United States. Then have students read one of the letters or diary entries and list the words that come to mind to describe the person they learned about in the document. Ask how reading the document affects their opinion of the person and have students and compare the two lists.
  • Explore the diaries of George Washington. How are Washington’s entries similar and different from other diaries they may have read or created? What clues do the entries provide about Washington as an individual rather than as a public figure?
  • Review the entry when Washington’s stepdaughter Patsy Custis died. Compare Roosevelt’s entry about the loss of his wife and mother and Washington’s entry about the loss of his stepdaughter. How do these entries compare, both in terms of writing style and content? How do students feel after reading Washington’s entry and why?

What are the benefits to students of learning about the private person behind the public title?

Comments (2)

  1. Are there letters between statesmen during the creation of the Constitution?

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