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President Jimmy Carter: A Short Biography

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Portrait of President Jimmy Carter

Portrait of President Jimmy Carter

Who Is Jimmy Carter?

Jimmy Carter was the 39th President of the United States, in office between January 20, 1977, and January 20, 1981. Though historians have not looked favorably on his years as president, he distinguished himself in the years after his term in office by dedicating himself to human rights and peace advocacy.

A Democrat and Baptist from rural Georgia, Carter had served in the U.S. Naval Academy as a naval officer and received several military awards, such as the American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, China Service Medal, and National Defense Service Medal. He was a peanut farmer before engaging in politics and serving two terms as a Georgia State Senator (1963-1967) and one as the Governor of Georgia (1971-1975). In 2002, Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize for his significant involvement in humanitarian causes through his non-profit Carter Center.

Early Life and Education

Jimmy Carter was born James Earl Carter Jr. on October 1, 1924, in Plains, Georgia. One of his ancestors was an English immigrant named Thomas Carter who arrived in Virginia in 1635. Thomas Carter’s descendants settled in Georgia, where they were cotton farmers. Carter is also related to the Cornell family, who founded Cornell University.

At the time of Carter’s birth, merely 600 people inhabited Plains. His father Earl had been a reserve second lieutenant in the US Army during World War I and he had a successful business in the town, running a general store and investing in farmland. He and his wife, Lillian moved several times before settling in Archery, a small community populated by African American families on the brink of impoverishment. The family worked long hours, and the mother was often absent from the children’s lives. The Carter children were allowed to play with the black farmers’ children in the area. According to Jimmy Carter, "I was the only white child in the neighborhood.”

Carter attended Plains public schools between 1930 and 1941. While the United States was suffering the aftermath of the Great Depression at that time, the Carter family benefited from farming subsidies. As a student, Carter was very hard working and had an affinity for reading. He played basketball on the Plains High School team and joined the Future Farmers of America. Around the same period, he became interested in woodworking, which would remain a lifelong hobby.

One of Carter’s dreams had always been to enter the U.S. Naval Academy, yet he enrolled at Georgia Southwestern College in 1941 to study engineering. A year later, he transferred to Georgia Tech in Atlanta and his admission to the Naval Academy was accepted in 1943. Carter stood out at the academy for his reserved and quiet personality, in contrast to the general culture of aggressiveness and confidence that was prevalent among the freshmen. However, he was acknowledged as a good student. During his time at the academy, he fell in love with Rosalynn Smith, a friend of his sister Ruth. Carter and Rosalynn married soon after his graduation in 1946. In the following years, the couple lived temporarily in several places around the United States, such as California, New York, Hawaii, and Virginia, where Carter was deployed. He served on fleets from both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Wedding photo from Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, 1946.

Wedding photo from Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, 1946.

Back to Georgia to Manage the Family Farm

After years of serving on submarines, Carter started to prepare for becoming an engineering officer for a nuclear power plant in Schenectady. However, when his father died, he inherited the family business and he and Rosalynn had to decide on a new course for their lives. Rosalynn had grown tired of moving around and preferred the comfortable life of Schenectady, while Carter felt disillusioned with the rigidity and restrictions of the military and craved a more tranquil life, like the one of his father. On October 9, 1953, Carter was discharged with honors from the Navy. He remained in the Navy Reserve for eight more years and left the service in 1961 as a lieutenant.

After the passing of Jimmy’s father, he received a small inheritance. His inheritance didn’t amount to much as he and his siblings divided the wealth and paid all the debts. Carter, his wife, and their three sons lived for an entire year in subsidized public housing in Plains. Using his knowledge of science and technology, Carter became interested in expanding the peanut-growing business of his father. The transition to farming was difficult and he had to struggle with banks and credits to maintain the farm. While he was taking classes and reading up on farming topics, his wife Rosalynn learned basic accounting to be able to manage the business on their own. After a year or two, the business grew extensively and became highly successful.

Jimmy Carter's Boyhood Home in Plains, Georgia

Jimmy Carter's Boyhood Home in Plains, Georgia

Early Political Career

Carter became involved in politics while living in Plains. His influence grew at the same time as racial tension intensified in the United States. Carter was an advocate of racial tolerance, yet he did not want to make enemies, especially after his peanut warehouse had been boycotted because of his refusal to join White Citizens’ Council. However, he became an influential figure in the community and decided to enter politics with the support of his wife. He started his political career with a seat in the state Senate. When he took office, the Civil Right Movement was in full expansion. Carter and his family became firm supporters of John F. Kennedy. Carter kept quiet on most controversial issues, yet he spoke up several times to defend his views.

In the first two years of his political career, Carter focused on legislative issues, making sure to be up to date with the heavy workload. He was elected as a member of the Democratic Executive Committee and chairman of the West Central Georgia Planning and Development Commission. On the last day of his second term in the State Senate, he announced his decision to run for Congress.

Carter lost two campaigns for governor, in 1966 and 1970. While the first loss put him in debt, he made sure to use the following four years for planning a better campaign. During this time, he became more interested in the Evangelical Church and declared himself a born-again Christian. Running a different, more modern campaign the second time, Carter won the election, despite several bitter moments that put him in an ultra-conservative position among voters. Nevertheless, as soon as he was elected, Carter did not deter himself from criticizing Georgia’s racist politics.

We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.

— Jimmy Carter

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Governor of Georgia

On January 12, 1971, Carter became the 76th Governor of Georgia. While many conservative voters felt betrayed by his confident speech on the end of racial segregation and social injustice, Carter became popular in the United States as a progressive governor of a “New South”. “I say to you quite frankly,” he said in his Inaugural Address “that the time for racial discrimination is over.”

One of his first measures in the office was to grow the governor’s authority and reduce the influence of the state government, implementing a new organization. However, his priority was civil rights. He focused on expanding the number of black employees in state agencies and he developed new education policies for children from poor communities, mentally challenged children, and convicts. He set new rules for the appointment of judges and state government officials, which were based on direct merit and not political influence as before.

During his time as a governor, Carter prepared himself for a potential presidential run by engaging in national politics and increasing the number of public appearances. Several of his attempts to become more popular among the public and to be appointed to key positions proved unsuccessful. In 1976, Carter ran for the Democratic Party presidential primaries, despite weak name recognition. His position as an outsider benefited him greatly, as the Watergate scandal made voters wary of trusting well-known politicians. He soon became a front-runner and launched an intelligent and widespread campaign, traveling to 37 states and delivering over 200 speeches. Having the most effective national strategy, he was nominated. Within 9 months, he raised from an unknown figure to President-elect, especially due to the support of the American elite from the communications media, which helped him carve a favorable reputation. In 1976, Carter was interviewed by Playboy and has remained the only US president with an interview in the famous magazine.

1976 Presidential Debate Between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.

1976 Presidential Debate Between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.

President of the United States

In 1977, Carter became the President of the United States, after defeating incumbent President Gerald Ford. However, his time in the office coincided with continuous inflation and recession, combined with an energy crisis, which Carter saw as the moral equivalent of war. Besides the national issues, which also included a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, Carter’s efforts had to be concentrated often on calming several international conflicts, in which the United States played a key role.

Along with the most visible conflicts in the Middle East, Carter had to deal with other tricky political issues such as giving back the Panama Canal, signing the SALT II nuclear arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union, and handling the 1979 to 1981 Iran hostage crisis. In 1979, the last year of Carter’s term as President, a group of Iranian students and supporters of the Iranian Revolution held hostage fifty-two Americans in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, for 444 days. Carter ordered the launch of a secret operation to free the hostages. Operation Eagle Claw failed, resulting in the death of eight American servicemen and the destruction of two aircrafts. This failure contributed to Carter’s defeat in the 1980 presidential election.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was one of the most difficult moments in Carter’s career, as it implied a threat to global security, especially to the oil supplies that the West received from the Persian Gulf. The Soviet move prompted Carter to make controversial decisions, which led to the intensification of the Cold War and its adjacent conflicts. Carter saw the Soviet act as a dangerous provocation and he spoke publicly about imposing sanctions on the Soviet Union while providing support and aid to Pakistan for the defense of the Persian Gulf. Backed by Margaret Thatcher, Carter summoned other countries to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, which resulted in a strange controversy on the international political scene. However, the task of handling the conflict fell on the following President-elect.

In the same year with the boycott, Carter run for presidential re-election, but his popularity had decreased immensely and he lost in the general election to Republican nominee Ronald Reagan, despite having won in the primary. Carter’s second presidential campaign in the 1980 election is considered as one of the most difficult and unsuccessful in history. He had to face equally powerful opponents from the right, center, and left, while the public attention focused on the Iran hostage crisis and the country’s unstable economy.

1979 Hostage Crisis Protesters.

1979 Hostage Crisis Protesters.


Carter’s presidency did not arouse much enthusiasm from historians studying his work, yet many consider that his post-presidency achievements are much more significant. In the years that followed his term in the White House, Jimmy Carter returned to Georgia and maintained an active life. He began teaching at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia and writing books. In 1982, he founded the Carter Center, a non-profit organization focused on human rights and other charity causes. Carter’s work included extensive travelling for peace negotiations or elections, but also programs focused on disease prevention and eradication in developing countries. He dedicated most of his time to charitable and humanitarian causes to alleviate human suffering, especially in underdeveloped countries where basic human needs were not met. Carter was also an influential figure in the development of Habitat for Humanity, a project aimed at bringing simple, yet decent housing to poor communities.

The extensive and influential work of the Carter Center, with its impact on disease eradication, election monitoring, housing, and many other global issues brought Carter a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. During the following years, he gave speeches and spoke up on international issues. He has been very critical of Israel’s position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and he often suggested as a solution the formation of two separate states. He did not support Bush’s decisions in the Iraq war.

Personal Life

Carter spends his free time painting, woodworking, cycling or playing tennis. He likes poetry, especially the work of Dylan Thomas. He always had a deep commitment to Christianity. He and his wife Rosalynn have three sons and a daughter.

In 2015, Carter had a nearly deadly brush with cancer and said "I just thought I had a few weeks to live" and left his fate "in the hands of God, whom I worship." In August of 2015, he first announced that a deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma, which was first found in his liver, had spread to his brain. It later came out that melanoma spots had reached his brain. Carter underwent treatment with a new drug, Keytruda, and by December of 2015, he announced at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, the cancer had disappeared. Four months later, he told the congregation that scans showed he was free of cancer and could end treatments.

On March 22, 2019, Jimmy Carter reached a personal milestone and became the nation's longest-lived president, surpassing the lifespan of George H. W. Bush, who died at the age of 94 years, 171 days.

Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

  • Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum
    Welcome to the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum website. The Library in Atlanta, Georgia, is part of the Presidential Library system administered by the National Archives and Records Administration, a Federal government agency.


Questions & Answers

Question: What were some of President Jimmy Carter's personal strengths and some of his personal weaknesses?

Answer: President Jimmy Carter was known for his honesty and integrity. After President Nixon and the Watergate scandal, America was looking for president outside of Washington that they could trust. In the general election of 1976, Carter faced Republican incumbent Gerald R. Ford, who had succeeded to the presidency after Richard Nixon’s resignation. Carter barely won the election and became president during a time of high inflation, an energy crisis, and the Iran Hostage Crisis. He is not remembered as a very effective president and only served one term.

© 2016 Doug West


Doug West (author) from Missouri on December 27, 2016:

No doubt, he is a man of great character and conviction.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on December 27, 2016:

In my opinion, probably the most sincere President in US history.

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