"Mamma Truman" and her presidential son

Harry S. Truman and Martha Ellen Young Truman (at age 80). This was his favorite photograph of her.

The nattily dressed man with the carefully combed gray hair and thick eyeglasses was engaged in an activity that often kept him grounded: letter writing. He was seated behind a high desk and he picked up his pen to begin another of his “Dear Mamma and Mary” letters to the women back home who meant the most to him, besides his wife and daughter: his mother and sister. The letter writing was as important to him and to his well-being as was his reading and his walking: it helped him keep things in perspective.

Only the desk he was writing from wasn’t just any ordinary, old desk: it was the desk from which, as vice president of the United States, Harry S. Truman sat as the presiding officer of the Senate, or its “president”—his only specifically mentioned role as mandated by the United States Constitution. At the time he was taking up his pen, Vice President Truman had only been in the position for 82 days and hadn’t had much interaction with the man who selected him to be the running mate on the 1944 Democratic ticket, Franklin D. Roosevelt.


Prior to his selection, Truman had been the junior senator from Missouri, a product of Prendergast machine politics and a former farmer, World War I captain and failed haberdasher. On this day, April 12, 1945, he sought refuge in his letter writing while pretending to listen intently to some pontificating senator drone on about the merits (or lack of) of a Mexican water treaty. It was only a few hours later, after a few libations with legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and other guests in the speaker’s inner sanctum known as the “Board of Education” (where members ended the day’s partisanship by unwinding with the raising of a few glasses while “striking a blow for liberty”) that Truman got a phone call that would drastically change his life—and that of the nation’s—forever.

Perhaps unknown to him at the time, when Harry Truman signed that letter to his mother and sister with his customary love and affection, he was already the 33rd president of the United States, upon the sudden death of F.D.R. that afternoon in Warm Springs, Georgia. And unknown to the recipient of the letter, 92-year-old Martha Ellen Young Truman had suddenly found fame as the mother of the president of the United States. It was something neither mother or son thought would ever happen to them.

Harry S. Truman was sworn in as president at 7:09 p.m. in the Cabinet room of the White House under the stern gaze of Woodrow Wilson—one of Truman’s presidential heroes—from a painting atop the mantel of the fireplace. When the oath was completed, he bent down and kissed the Bible. He left the White House with his wife and daughter and went back to his modest Connecticut Avenue apartment, where neighbors had gathered with food and refreshments for the nation’s new First Family. President Truman simply ate a ham and turkey sandwich, drank a glass of buttermilk and before he went to bed to end a long and historic day, picked up the phone to call his mother back home in Missouri to tell her that he was “all right and not to worry.”

The next day—Friday the 13th—the new president walked briskly to his new job at the White House. When he encountered the reporters he considered friends, he uttered words that became famous for their simultaneous awe and humility: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.” Almost simultaneously, the new presidential mother had a statement of her own: she simply said that she was sorry that Mr. Roosevelt had died and that if her son Harry had been elected in his own right, she would have been proudly flying the American flag. When he heard that, President Truman beamed and said that it was better than anything those “highly paid Madison Avenue types” could have come up with.

Our personalities are a combination of our mothers and fathers, with our own contributions thrown in. With presidents, it is no different: they, too, are affected and influenced by parental nature and nurture. Harry S. Truman was a good example of this: both his mother, Martha Ellen Young Truman, and his father, John Anderson Truman, left their mark on their presidential son. But it was Martha Ellen who had a special claim on his development and character.

If Harry S. Truman is remembered for being outspoken and of determined character, he was simply following the example of his mother. She was a rarity for the women of her era, for she was very well-educated: she attended a female Baptist college and majored in music and literature—unembarrassedly passing on her affinity for these subjects to her son.  A “light-footed Baptist,” she wasn’t bound by the proprieties of women of her day: she was keen on learning and appreciating the arts and culture and didn’t let life on the farm constrain her. It was Mrs. Truman who discovered his bad eyesight and had prescription lenses proscribed for the young boy’s “flat eyeballs.” In time, she taught him to read the Bible before he was 5 and gifted him with his love of history through the four-volume set of biographies known as Great Men and Famous Women by Charles Francis Horne (which he quickly read through, as well as—in time—all the books in the Independence Public Library). Though she had another son and a daughter, it was Harry in whom she saw special qualities. She always prodded him in whatever he sought out to do, like any mother ambitious for her child, but she was fair: in her old age, when her son attained high office and the other son remained a farmer and her daughter stayed unmarried in order to care for her, she told everyone that she was equally proud of each of her children. The Truman children had no airs; they were true to what they were taught by their parents, and they stayed loyal and loving to their background and heritage. “Mamma Truman” did not hesitate to let her son know what she felt about him and the times he lived in.

Mother Truman was two inches taller than her husband (she was 5’6”) and in their wedding photograph, she was seen standing and he appeared sitting—but they both had a positive glint in their eyes, which they passed on to their son. If Harry had his mother’s cultural sensibilities with books and music, he had his father’s love of politics in abundance, and both sets of parental qualities served him greatly in time and prepared him well for his future.

Harry Truman had a basically equitable temperament and there wasn’t much that troubled him. But there were two incidents in his life that tested his optimism and they both involved his mother: one when he was just a farmer and one when he was in the White House.  The first was when his mother needed emergency abdominal surgery. There was no time for a hospital: the doctor had to operate on the kitchen table, with Harry holding a lantern very carefully, lest one wrong move affect the doctor’s operation. The second time was when Truman was on the presidential plane halfway home toward Missouri when his mother was failing. The president had been sleeping when he awoke with a start: he had dreamt that his mother appeared to him to say goodbye and to admonish him one more time to “be a good boy, Harry.” Truman was badly shaken by his dream, but it was nothing when the call finally came that his mother had died. She died two years after he became president; his biggest booster surrendered her human life.

There are many ways to evaluate a possible president; perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad thing to use a parental influence as a sign of presidential worth. The parents of a possible president can tell one a lot about the kind of person we are being asked to consider for the highest office of the land. All the other metrics that have been used haven’t helped very much; maybe an examination of parental influence can offer us clues as to future performance. In Harry Truman’s case, his father and mother did a magnificent job and considering all things, the country was lucky for it.  And when you think about it, Harry S. Truman was indeed a fortunate man to have had so many influential women in his life, beginning with his mother. Our presidents should be equally fortunate.

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Richard Okeefe
2 years 9 months ago
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