Biography of Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States

A formal portrait of President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.
President Jimmy Carter. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

Jimmy Carter (born James Earl Carter, Jr.; October 1, 1924) is an American politician who served as the 39th president of the United States from 1977 to 1981. His perceived failure to deal with serious problems facing the nation at the time lead to Carter’s failure to be elected to a second term. However, for his international diplomacy and advocacy for human rights and social development, both during and after his presidency, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

Fast Facts: Jimmy Carter

  • Known For: 39th President of the United States (1977-1981)
  • Also Known As: born James Earl Carter, Jr.
  • Born: October 1, 1924, in Plains, Georgia, United States
  • Parents: James Earl Carter Sr. and Lillian (Gordy) Carter
  • Education: Georgia Southwestern College, 1941-1942; Georgia Institute of Technology, 1942-1943; US Naval Academy, B.S., 1946 Military: US Navy, 1946-1953
  • Published Works: Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, An Hour Before Daylight, Our Endangered Values
  • Awards and Honors: Nobel Peace Prize (2002)
  • Spouses: Eleanor Rosalynn Smith Children: John, James III, Donnel, and Amy
  • Notable Quote: “Human rights is the soul of our foreign policy, because human rights is the very soul of our sense of nationhood.”

Early Life and Education

Jimmy Carter was born James Earl Carter Jr. on October 1, 1924, in Plains, Georgia. The first U.S. president to be born in a hospital, he was the oldest son of Lillian Gordy, a registered nurse, and James Earl Carter Sr., a farmer, and businessman, who ran a general store. Lillian and James Earl eventually had three more children, Gloria, Ruth, and Billy.

Photograph of one year old Jimmy Carter, 1927
Jimmy Carter at one year old. Bettmann / Getty Images

As a teenager, Carter earned money by growing peanuts on his family’s farm and selling them in his father’s store. Though Earl Carter was a firm segregationist, he allowed Jimmy to befriend the children of local black farmworkers. In the early 1920s, Carter’s mother had defied racial barriers to advise black women on health care issues. In 1928, the family moved to Archery, Georgia, a small town just two miles from Plains, populated almost entirely by impoverished African American families. While most of the rural South was devastated by the Great Depression, the Carter family’s farms prospered, eventually employing over 200 workers.

In 1941, Jimmy Carter graduated from the all-white Plains High School. Despite being raised in this racially-segregated environment, Carter recalled that many of his closest childhood friends were African American. In the fall of 1941, he studied engineering at Georgia Southwestern College in Americus, Georgia, transferred to the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta in 1942, and was admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1943. Excelling at academics, Carter graduated in the top ten percent of his class on June 5, 1946, and obtained his commission as a Navy ensign.

While attending the Naval Academy, Carter fell in love with Rosalynn Smith, whom he had known since childhood. The couple married on July 7, 1946, and would go on to have four children: Amy Carter, Jack Carter, Donnel Carter, and James Earl Carter III.

Naval Career

From 1946 to 1948, Ensign Carter’s duty included tours aboard the battleships Wyoming and Mississippi in the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. After completing officers' training at the U.S. Navy Submarine School at New London, Connecticut, in 1948, he was assigned to the submarine Pomfret and was promoted to lieutenant, junior grade in 1949. In 1951, Carter qualified for command and served as Executive Officer aboard the submarine Barracuda.

Jimmy Carter as Ensign, USN, circa World War II
Jimmy Carter as Ensign, USN, circa World War II. PhotoQuest / Contributor / Getty Images

In 1952, the Navy assigned Carter to assist Admiral Hyman Rickover in developing nuclear propulsion plants for naval vessels. Of his time with the brilliant but demanding Rickover, Carter recalled, “I think, second to my own father, Rickover had more effect on my life than any other man.”

In December 1952, Carter led the U.S. Navy crew assisting with the shutdown and cleanup of the damaged experimental nuclear reactor at Atomic Energy of Canada's Chalk River Laboratories. As president, Carter would cite his experiences with the Chalk River meltdown for shaping his views on atomic energy and his decision to block U.S. development of a neutron bomb.

After the death of his father in October 1953, Carter requested and was honorably discharged from the Navy and remained on reserve duty until 1961.

Political Career: From Peanut Farmer to President

A novelty transistor radio and a wind-up toy, each in the shape of a peanut, satirize President Jimmy Carter's past as a peanut farmer.
A novelty transistor radio and a wind-up toy, each in the shape of a peanut, satirize President Jimmy Carter's past as a peanut farmer. The Frent Collection / Contributor / Getty Images

After the death of his father in 1953, Carter moved his family back to Plains, Georgia, too care for his mother and take over the family's failing business. After returning the family farm to profitability, Carter—now a respected peanut farmer—became active in local politics, winning a seat on the county board of education in 1955 and eventually becoming its chairman. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling ordered the desegregation of all U.S. public schools. As civil rights protests demanding an end to all forms of racial discrimination spread across the nation, public opinion in the rural South remained strongly opposed the idea of racial equality. When the segregationist White Citizens' Council organized a Plains chapter, Carter was only white man who refused to join.

Carter was elected to the Georgia State Senate in 1962. After running unsuccessfully in 1966, he was elected as Georgia's 76th governor on January 12, 1971. By then a rising star in national politics, Carter was selected as the campaign chairman for the Democratic National Committee in the 1974 congressional and gubernatorial elections.

Carter announced his candidacy for President of the United States on December 12, 1974, and won his party’s nomination on the first ballot at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. In the presidential election on Tuesday, November 2, 1976, Carter defeated incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford, winning 297 electoral votes and 50.1% of the popular vote. Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as the 39th President of the United States on January 20, 1977.

The Carter Presidency

Carter took office during a period of economic recession and a deepening energy crisis. As one of his first acts, he fulfilled a campaign promise by issuing an executive order granting unconditional amnesty for all Vietnam War-era draft evaders. Carter’s domestic policy focused on ending the United States’ dependence on foreign oil. While he achieved an 8% decrease in foreign oil consumption, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 resulted in soaring oil prices and an unpopular nationwide gasoline shortage, overshadowing Carter's achievements.

Carter made human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy. He cut off U.S. aid to Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua in response to their governments’ human rights abuses. In 1978, he negotiated the Camp David Accords, a historic Middle East peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. In 1979, Carter signed the SALT II nuclear arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union, at least temporarily easing Cold War tensions. 

Despite his successes, Carter’s presidency was generally regarded as a failure. His inability to work with Congress limited his ability to implement what might have been his most effective policies. His controversial 1977 Torrijos–Carter Treaties returning the Panama Canal to Panama led many people to view him as a weak leader with little concern for protecting U.S. assets abroad. In 1979, his disastrous “Crisis of Confidence” speech angered voters by seeming to blame America’s problems on the people’s disrespect for government and lack of “spirit.”

The main cause of Carter’s political downfall may have been the Iranian Hostage Crisis. On November 4, 1979, Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 66 Americans hostage. His failure to negotiate their release, followed by a dismally failed covert rescue mission further eroded public confidence in Carter’s leadership. The hostages were held for 444 days until being released on the day Carter left office on January 20, 1981.

In the 1980 election, Carter was denied a second term, suffering a landslide loss to former actor and Republican governor of California Ronald Reagan. On the day after the election, the New York Times wrote, “On Election Day, Mr. Carter was the issue.”

Later Life and Legacy

Jimmy Carter accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, 2002
Jimmy Carter accepts the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. Getty Images / Stringer

After leaving office, Carter’s humanitarian efforts more than restored his reputation, leaving him widely regarded as one of America’s greatest former-presidents. Along with his work with Habitat for Humanity, he founded the Carter Center, dedicated to promoting and protecting human rights worldwide. In addition, he worked to improve health care systems in Africa and Latin America and oversaw 109 elections in 39 fledgling democracies.

In 2012, Carter helped build and repair homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and in 2017, he teamed with the four other former presidents to work with One America Appeal in assisting victims of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma in the Gulf Coast. Moved by his hurricane relief experiences, he wrote several articles describing the goodness he has seen in Americans’ eagerness to help each other during natural disasters.

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.” In his acceptance speech, Carter summarized the mission of his life and hope for the future. “The bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices,” he said. "God gives us the capacity for choice. We can choose to alleviate suffering. We can choose to work together for peace. We can make these changes — and we must."

Health Issues and Longevity

Former United States Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton address the audience during the
Former United States Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton address the audience during the "Deep From The Heart: One America Appeal Concert” on October 21, 2017. Gary Miller / Contributor / Getty Images

On August 3, 2015, after returning from a trip to monitor the presidential election in Guyana, the then 91-year-old Carter underwent elective surgery to remove "a small mass" from his liver. On August 20, he announced that he was undergoing immunotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer on his brain and liver. On December 6, 2015, Carter stated that his latest medical tests no longer showed any evidence of cancer and would be returning to his work for Habitat for Humanity.

Carter suffered a broken hip in a fall at his Plains home on May 13, 2019, and underwent surgery the same day. After a second fall on October 6, 2019, he received 14 stitches above his left eyebrow, and on October 21, 2019, was treated for a minor pelvic fracture after falling for a third time at his home. Despite the injury, Carter returned to teaching Sunday school at the Maranatha Baptist Church on November 3, 2019. On November 11, 2019, Carter underwent surgery that succeeded in relieving pressure on his brain caused by bleeding stemming from his recent falls. 

On October 1, 2019, Carter celebrated his 95th birthday and became the oldest living former U.S. president in history, a title once held by the late George H. W. Bush, who died on November 30, 2018, at age 94. Cater and his wife, Rosalynn are also the longest-married president and first lady couple, having been married for more than 73 years.

At Peace With Death

On November 3, 2019, Carter shared his thoughts on death with his Maranatha Baptist Church Sunday school class. “I, of course, thought I was going to die,” he said referring to his 2015 bout with cancer. “I prayed about it and was at peace with it,” he told the class.

Carter has arranged to be buried at his home in Plains, Georgia, after a funeral in Washington, D.C., and visitation at the Carter Center in Atlanta’s Freedom Park.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Bourne, Peter G. “Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography From Plains to Post-Presidency.” New York: Scribner, 1997.
  • Fink, Gary M. “The Carter Presidency: Policy Choices in the Post-New Deal Era.” University Press of Kansas, 1998.
  • “The Nobel Peace Prize 2002.” NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2019. Sun. 17 Nov 2019. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2002/summary/.
  • “President Jimmy Carter says he's 'at peace' with death during church service.” ABC News, Nov. 3, 2019, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/president-jimmy-carter-says-hes-at-peace-with-death-during-church-service/ar-AAJMnci.