Monday was Presidents’ Day. When I think about those who have served as our nation’s presidents, I am struck by how many faced tremendous adversity, misfortune, and harsh conditions.

 George Washington lost his father when he was ten. His half-brother Lawrence became a father figure to him until he died of tuberculosis when Washington was a teenager. Even worse, Washington endured the chronic complaints of a not-so-grateful mother (While serving as commander in chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, Washington was mortified to receive word from the Continental Congress that his mother notified them that she was an impoverished widow due to her son’s lack of financial support—totally untrue. )

 Andrew Jackson was known as a rough man of the frontier. Easy to understand considering he was orphaned at 14 and had his face permanently scarred by the cut from the sword of an invading British redcoat. 

Millard Fillmore grew up in poverty in upper New York. Fillmore, the son of tenant farmers, sought to better himself by reading books. It worked, and Fillmore was admitted to the bar as a lawyer at age 23. 

Of course. We all know the story of Abraham Lincoln, growing up in poverty on the frontier, losing his beloved mother in childhood, and losing his love, Ann Rutledge, when he was in his 20s. (Seeing Lincoln lie on her grave, friends hit the sharp objects, fearing his depression would lead to suicide.) Through the self-study of law, Lincoln passed the bar and became a well-known attorney before he became president.  

William McKinley’s wife suffered from epileptic seizures. She would, on occasion, suffer seizures during state dinners, and McKinley would calmly and discreetly place a napkin on her face until she came out of it.

Theodore Roosevelt almost died in childhood because of severe asthma. Puny and frail, his father inspired him to build his body through physical exercise. He succeeded through what he called the strenuous life. At age 25, he lost his wife and mother on the same day—his wife while giving birth to their first child, a daughter.

I wrote a few weeks ago about Herbert Hoover, growing up an orphan shuffled from home to home by various family members. You can read about him here…

Three of our presidents in the twentieth century grew up with “silver spoons” in their mouths. Franklin Roosevelt was raised on an estate in upper New York. He married his cousin, Eleanor, the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt’s brother, Elliot. Franklin was a rising star in politics until polio paralyzed his legs and almost killed him at age 39. Relegated to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, he had to rebuild his political career. 

John F Kennedy grew up in a wealthy family and lost his older brother during the war and his older sister after the war, both to plane crashes. Kennedy himself was almost killed in World War II when his boat, the Pt-109, was attacked. Despite an injury that permanently injured his back, Kennedy performed heroically in the tragedy. 

George H. W. Bush volunteered as a naval aviator when he turned 18. Serving in World War II, he almost died when his plane was shot down over the Pacific Ocean. The catastrophe killed his crewmates, and Bush’s survival helped him seek God’s mission for his life. 

These are a few of the selections illustrating the challenges that these individuals faced. Show me a president, and I can point to at least one challenge that individual had to overcome. Here’s what inspires me, though. I don’t believe these men would have become president without their trials and tribulations. They needed those circumstances to grow. For example, consider Franklin Roosevelt. Historians write that he would have never become president had he not contracted polio. The trial taught him humility and gave him grit. Life’s tests infused each president with essential character elements that helped him overcome. 

I am not inviting us to yearn for adversity, but when the trials of life inevitably arrive, let us lean in to overcome. We would do well to appreciate how our character can be enriched through overcoming the obstacles in our lives.