Jimmy Carter

U.S. President and Humanitarian

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Collins, Lee Joanne, Contributing Writer. "Jimmy Carter." ThoughtCo, Mar. 14, 2016, thoughtco.com/jimmy-carter-1779871. Collins, Lee Joanne, Contributing Writer. (2016, March 14). Jimmy Carter. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/jimmy-carter-1779871 Collins, Lee Joanne, Contributing Writer. "Jimmy Carter." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/jimmy-carter-1779871 (accessed October 22, 2017).
A Picture of President Jimmy Carter
American Democratic politician and the 39th President of the United States of America, Jimmy Carter. (circa 1980). (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Who Was Jimmy Carter?

Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia, was the 39th President of the United States, serving from 1977 to 1981. The United States had been reeling from the resignation of President Richard Nixon when little-known Carter, promoting himself as a government outsider, was elected president. Unfortunately, Carter was so new and inexperienced that he failed to get much done during his single term as president.

After his presidency, however, Jimmy Carter has spent his time and energy being an advocate for peace around the world, especially through the Carter Center, which he and his wife Rosalynn founded.  As many have said, Jimmy Carter has been a much better ex-president.

Dates: October 1, 1924 (born)

Also Known As: James Earl Carter, Jr.

Famous Quote: “We have no desire to be the world's policeman. But America does want to be the world's peacemaker." (State of the Union Address, Jan. 25, 1979)

Family and Childhood

Jimmy Carter (born James Earl Carter, Jr.) was born on October 1, 1924 in Plains, Georgia. (He was to become the first president born in a hospital.) He had two younger sisters close to his age and a brother born when he was 13. Jimmy's mother, Bessie Lillian Gordy Carter, a registered nurse, encouraged him to care for the poor and needy. His father, James Earl Sr., was a peanut and cotton farmer who also owned a farm-supply business.

Jimmy's father, known as Earl, moved the family to a farm in the small community of Archery when Jimmy was four. Jimmy helped on the farm and with deliveries of farm products. He was small and clever and his father put him to work. By the age of five, Jimmy was selling boiled peanuts door-to-door in Plains.

At age eight, he invested in cotton and was able to buy five share-cropper houses that he rented out.

When not in school or working, Jimmy hunted and fished, played games with the children of the sharecroppers, and read extensively. Jimmy Carter's faith as a Southern Baptist was important to him his whole life. He was baptized and joined Plains Baptist Church at age eleven.

Carter got an early glimpse at politics when his father, who supported Georgia's Governor Gene Talmadge, took Jimmy along to political events. Earl also helped lobby legislation to benefit farmers, showing Jimmy how politics could be used to help others.

Carter, who enjoyed school, attended the all-white Plains High School, which taught approximately 300 students from first through eleventh grades. (Up until the 7th grade, Carter went to school barefoot.)

Education

Carter was from a small community and so it’s perhaps not surprising that he was the only one of his 26-member graduating class to get a college degree. Carter was determined to graduate because he wanted to be more than just a peanut farmer – he wanted to join the Navy like his Uncle Tom and see the world.

At first, Carter attended Georgia Southwestern College and then the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he was in the Navy ROTC.

In 1943, Carter was accepted into the prestigious U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he graduated in June 1946 with a degree in engineering and a commission as an ensign.

On a visit to Plains before his final year at Annapolis, he started courting his sister Ruth's best friend, Rosalynn Smith. Rosalynn had grown up in Plains, but was three years younger than Carter. On July 7, 1946, shortly after Jimmy's graduation, they married. They went on to have three sons: Jack in 1947, Chip in 1950, and Jeff in 1952. In 1967, after they had been married 21 years, they had a daughter, Amy.

Navy Career

In his first two years with the Navy, Carter served on battleships in Norfolk, Virginia, on USS Wyoming and later on USS Mississippi, working with radar and training. He applied for submarine duty and studied at the U.S. Navy Submarine School in New London, Connecticut for six months.

He then served at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and San Diego, California, on the submarine USS Pomfret for two years.  

In 1951, Carter moved back to Connecticut and helped prepare the USS K-1, the first submarine built after the war, to be launched.  He then variously served as the executive officer, engineering officer, and electronics repair officer on it.

In 1952, Jimmy Carter applied and was accepted to work with Captain Hyman Rickover developing a nuclear submarine program. He was preparing to become engineering officer for the USS Seawolf, the first atomic powered sub, when he learned that his father was dying.

Civilian Life

In July 1953, Carter's father died of pancreatic cancer. After much reflection, Jimmy Carter decided that he needed to return to Plains to help his family. When he told Rosalynn of his decision, she was shocked and upset. She didn’t want to move back to rural Georgia; she liked being a Navy wife. In the end, Jimmy prevailed.

After he was honorably discharged, Jimmy, Rosalynn, and their three sons moved back to Plains, where Jimmy took over the running of his father’s farm and farm-supply business. Rosalynn, who at first was miserably unhappy, began to work in the office and found that she enjoyed helping run the business and keeping the books. The Carters worked hard on the farm and, despite a drought, the farm soon began to bring in a profit again.

Jimmy Carter became very active locally and joined committees and boards for the library, chamber of commerce, Lions Club, county school board, and the hospital. He even helped organize the fundraising and building of the community’s first swimming pool. It wasn’t long before Carter was involved at the state level for similar activities.

However, times were changing in Georgia. Segregation, which had been deeply entrenched in the South, was being challenged in the courts, in cases such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954).  Carter's "liberal" racial views set him apart from other local whites. When he was asked in 1958 to join the White Citizens Council, a group of whites in town that were opposed to integration, Carter refused.

 He was the only white man in Plains that didn’t join.  

In 1962, Carter was ready to expand his civic duties; thus, he ran for and won the election for the Georgia state senate, running as a Democrat. Leaving the family farm and business in the hands of his younger brother, Billy, Carter and his family moved to Atlanta and began a new chapter of his life – politics.

Governor of Georgia

After four years as state senator, Carter, always ambitious, wanted more. So, in 1966, Carter ran for governor of Georgia, but was defeated, in part because many whites viewed him as too liberal. In 1970, Carter ran again for governor. This time, he toned down his liberalism in the hopes of appealing to a wider margin of white voters. It worked. Carter was elected Georgia’s governor.

Toning down his views, though, was just a ploy to win the election. Once in office, Carter held firm to his beliefs and tried to make changes. In his inaugural address, given on January 12, 1971, Carter revealed his true agenda when he said,

 

I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over….No poor, rural, weak, or black person should ever have to bear the additional burden of being deprived of the opportunity of an education, a job or simple justice.

 

It is perhaps needless to say that some conservative whites who voted for Carter were upset at being deceived. However, many others around the country began to take notice of this liberal Democrat from Georgia.

After spending four years as Georgia’s governor, Carter began thinking about his next political office. Since there was a one-term limit on the governorship in Georgia, he couldn’t run again for the same position. His choices were to look downward for a smaller political position or upward to the national level. Carter, now 50 years old, was still young, full of energy and passion, and determined to do more for his country. Thus, he looked upward and saw opportunity on the national stage.

Running for President of the United States

In 1976, the country was looking for someone different. The American people had been disillusioned by the lying and cover-up that surrounded Watergate and the eventual resignation of Republican President Richard Nixon.

Vice President Gerald Ford, who had taken over the presidency upon Nixon’s resignation, also seemed a bit tainted with the scandal since he had pardoned Nixon for all his wrongdoings.

Now, a somewhat unknown peanut farmer who was a one-term governor of a southern state was perhaps not the most logical choice, but Carter campaigned hard to make himself known with the slogan, "A Leader, For a Change." He spent a year touring the country and wrote about his life in an autobiography titled, Why Not the Best?: The First Fifty Years.

In January 1976, the Iowa caucuses (the first in the nation) gave him 27.6% of the votes, making him the frontrunner. By figuring out what Americans were looking for--and being that person--Carter made his case. A series of primary victories followed: New Hampshire, Florida, and Illinois.

The Democratic Party chose Carter, who was both a centrist and a Washington outsider, as its candidate for president at its convention in New York on July 14, 1976.  Carter would be running against incumbent President Gerald Ford.

Neither Carter nor his opponent were able to avoid missteps in the campaign and the election was close. Ultimately, Carter won 297 electoral votes to Ford's 240 and thus was elected president in America's bicentennial year.

Carter was the first man from the Deep South to be elected to the White House since Zachary Taylor in 1848.

Carter Tries to Make Changes During His Presidency

Jimmy Carter wanted to make government responsive to the American people and their expectations. However, as an outsider working with Congress, he found his high hopes for change were difficult to achieve.

Domestically, inflation, high prices, pollution, and the energy crisis took up his attention. An oil shortage and high prices for gasoline had developed in 1973 when OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) cut back their exports. People feared they would not be able to buy gas for their cars and sat in long lines at gas stations. Carter and his staff created the Department of Energy in 1977 to address the problems. During his presidency, the U. S. oil consumption rate dropped by 20 percent.

Carter also began the Department of Education to help college students and public schools all over the nation. Major environmental legislation included the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

Working Toward Peace

Also during his presidency, Carter wanted to protect human rights and promote peace around the world. He suspended economic and military aid to Chile, El Salvador, and Nicaragua because of human rights abuses in those countries.

After 14 years of negotiations with Panama over control of the Panama Canal, both countries finally agreed to sign treaties during Carter's administration. The treaties passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 68 to 32 in 1977. The Canal was to be turned over to Panama in 1999.

In 1978, Carter organized a summit meeting of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David in Maryland. He wanted the two leaders to meet and agree on a peaceful solution to the hostilities between the two governments. After 13 days of long, difficult meetings, they agreed to the Camp David Accords as a first step toward peace.

One of the most threatening things of this era were the large number of nuclear weapons in the world.  Carter wanted to reduce that number. In 1979, he and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) treaty to reduce the number of nuclear weapons that each nation produced.

Losing Public Confidence

Despite some early successes, things started going downhill for President Jimmy Carter in 1979, the third year of his presidency.

First, there was another problem with energy. When OPEC announced in June 1979 another price increase in oil, Carter's approval rating dropped to 25%. Carter went on television July 15, 1979 to address the American public in a speech now known as “Crisis of Confidence.”

Unfortunately, the speech backfired on Carter. Instead of the American public feeling empowered to make changes to help solve the nation’s energy crisis as he had hoped, the public felt that Carter had tried to lecture them and blame them for the nation’s problems. The speech led the public to have a “crisis of confidence” in Carter’s leadership abilities.

The SALT II treaty, which would have been a highlight of Carter’s presidency, was foiled when, in late December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Outraged, Carter pulled the SALT II treaty from Congress and it was never ratified. Also in response to the invasion, Carter called for a grain embargo and made the unpopular decision to withdraw from the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.

Despite these setbacks, there was an even larger one that was to help destroy the public’s confidence in his presidency and that was the Iranian hostage crisis. On November 4, 1979, 66 Americans were taken hostage from the American Embassy in the Iranian capital of Tehran. Fourteen hostages were released but the remaining 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days.

Carter, who refused to give in to the kidnappers demands (they wanted the Shah returned to Iran, presumably to be killed), ordered a secret rescue attempt to take place in April 1980. Unfortunately, the rescue attempt turned into a complete failure that resulted in the death of eight would-be rescuers.

The public was vividly remembering all of Carter’s past failures when Republican Ronald Reagan began campaigning for president with the phrase: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Jimmy Carter ultimately lost the 1980 election to Republican Ronald Reagan by a landslide – only 49 electoral votes to Reagan’s 489. Then, on January 20, 1981, the day that Reagan took office, Iran finally released the hostages.

Broke

With his presidency over and the hostages freed, it was time for Jimmy Carter to go home to Plains, Georgia. However, Carter had recently learned that his peanut farm and warehouse, which had been held in a blind trust while he served his nation, had suffered from drought and mismanagement while he was away.

As it turned out, ex-President Jimmy Carter was not only broke, he had a personal debt of $1 million. In an attempt to pay off the debt, Carter sold the family’s business, though he managed to salvage his home and two plots of land. He then began raising money to pay his debts and to establish a presidential library by writing books and lecturing.

Life After the Presidency

Jimmy Carter did what most ex-presidents do when they leave the presidency; he fished, read, wrote, and hunted. He became a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia and eventually wrote 28 books, including autobiographies, histories, spiritual help, and even one work of fiction.

Yet these activities were not enough for 56-year-old Jimmy Carter. So, when Millard Fuller, a fellow Georgian, wrote to Carter in 1984 with a list of possible ways Carter could help the non-profit housing group Habit for Humanity, Carter agreed to them all. He became so involved with Habitat that many people thought Carter had founded the organization.

The Carter Center

In 1982, Jimmy and Rosalynn founded the Carter Center, which adjoins Carter’s Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta (the Center and the Presidential Library together are called the Carter Presidential Center). The nonprofit Carter Center is a human rights organization that attempts to alleviate human suffering around the world.

The Carter Center works to resolve conflicts, promote democracy, protect human rights, and monitor elections to assess fairness. It also works with medical experts to identify diseases that can be prevented through sanitation and medications.

One of the major successes of the Carter Center was their work in eradicating Guinea worm disease (Dracunculiasis). In 1986, there were 3.5 million people a year in 21 countries in Africa and Asia afflicted with Guinea worm disease. Through the work of the Carter Center and its partners, the incidence of Guinea worm has been reduced by 99.9 percent to 148 cases in 2013.

Other projects of the Carter Center include agriculture improvement, human rights, equality for women, and The Atlanta Project (TAP). TAP seeks to confront the gap between haves and have-nots in the city of Atlanta through a collaborative, community-centered effort. Rather than impose solutions, the citizens themselves are empowered to identify the problems they were concerned with. TAP leaders followed Carter's problem-solving philosophy: first listen to what is bothering people.

Recognition

Jimmy Carter’s dedication to improving the lives of millions has not gone unnoticed. In 1999, Jimmy and Rosalynn were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

And then in 2002, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development." Only three other U.S. presidents have received this award.