In his new book, Bill Clinton: An American Journey, author Nigel Hamilton looks at the life experiences that really formed the 42nd president of the United States.
Hamilton looks back at Clinton's upbringing in Arkansas, his student years at Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale universities and his decisions regarding Vietnam and military service.
Read chapter one from Bill Clinton: An American Journey.
THE WALLS OF HOPE
Few American presidents have had so little idea of their family's past as William Jefferson Clinton. On his father's side-well, the many questions that surround his paternity we must defer until later. On his mother's side, however, he had reasonable cause to believe he was a sixth-generation southerner, able to trace his Cassady forebears back through Alabama to South Carolina in the early nineteenth century. Then, in the late nineteenth century, he was told, a certain James Monroe Cassady left Alabama with his wife, Sarah Lou, and his Russell parents-in-law, in a traditional covered wagon. They migrated across the Mississippi River, moving to an area known as the New Hope Community and settling beside Ebenezer Primitive Baptist Church in Bodcaw, Nevada County, Arkansas, a group of extended families numbering perhaps a hundred souls, 110 miles southwest of Little Rock, the state capital. There, in 1886, they built a wooden house, became Arkansans, and began cotton farming.
Whatever had been the motive for the Cassadys' move, however, it did not bring prosperity for the family. Arkansas was, at the end of the nineteenth century, a backward, landlocked state, the twenty-fifth in the Union, some 55,000 square miles in size, bordering the Mississippi on its eastern side and abutting Indian territory on its western frontier. In between, spread out not only across its lowland, delta landscape but up high into its hinterlands, which stretched across the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains to the northwest, the state boasted almost one million people, almost no industry, the worst schools in the nation, and widespread poverty among whites as well as blacks-who, in the wake of slavery and the Civil War, made up more than a fifth of its population.
James Eldridge Cassidy
The Cassady family seemed to go in for presidential names-though none can seriously have imagined that one of their descendants would actually become a U.S. president. William Jefferson Clinton's great-great-grandfather had been baptized with the names George Washington Cassady-though why James Monroe, his eldest son, left Alabama, several years after getting married in 1880, nobody knows. It was on the small cotton farm in Bodcaw, Arkansas, however, that James Monroe's third son, James Eldridge Cassady-William Jefferson Clinton's grandfather-was born on August 19, 1898, the youngest of their five children.
James Eldridge Cassady's childhood was marred by poverty and death. He was orphaned at eight, when his father died of pneumonia on a train trip to the old family home in Alabama. The family farm was sold two years later, in 1906, and, moving with his mother to her widower brother's home, he was thereafter raised by his uncle Bill Russell, alongside Bill's ten children, on whose cotton farm he was expected to work once he left school. This he did at age thirteen, after fifth grade.