Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter

39th President, 1977-1981

Early Life and Pre-presidency

White House photograph of Carter, 1977

White House photograph of Carter, 1977

  • Born James Earl Carter, Jr. on October 1, 1924 in Plains, Georgia.
  • Parents: James Earl Carter and Bessie Lillian Gordy. Siblings: William Alton, Gloria, and Ruth.
  • Graduated class valedictorian from Plains High School in 1941.
  • Enrolled at Georgia Southwestern College in Americus, Georgia and studied for one year, then studied at Georgia Institute of Technology from 1942 to 1943.
  • Admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1943 and graduated in 1947. He worked in the Navy’s nuclear submarine program. He resigned his commission and was discharged from the Navy in October 1953.
  • Married Eleanor Rosalynn Smith (1927–) on July 7, 1946. Children: John William (1947–), James Earl III (1950–), Donnel Jeffrey (Jeff) (1952–), and Amy Lynn (1967–).
  • When a nuclear reactor at the Atomic Energy of Canada’s Chalk River Laboratories had a partial meltdown in December 1952, Carter was the officer-in-charge of the American team that helped in shutting it down. The team disassembled the reactor by being lowered into it to remove the parts piece by piece.
  • After his father’s death in July 1953, he returned to Plains to take over his father’s peanut farm and had become very prosperous by 1970.
  • Elected to a seat on the Sumter County Board of Education in 1955.
  • Elected to a seat on the Georgia State Senate in 1962 and served from 1963 to 1967.
  • Ran for Governor of Georgia in the 1966 election but lost. He ran again in 1970 and won. He served from 1971 to 1975.
  • As Governor of Georgia, he fought against racial segregation by appointing many African–Americans to state government positions.
  • As Governor, he also reduced the number of agencies in the state from 300 to 30 by coalescing several small agencies into big ones in order to improve bureaucracy.
  • Nominated as the Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party in the 1976 election with Walter F. Mondale as his running mate.
  • Won the 1976 Presidential election with 50.1% of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral votes.


Jimmy Carter with George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, November 2004

Jimmy Carter with George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, November 2004

  • Took his oath of office on January 20, 1977 at the East Portico, U.S. Capitol.
  • When he assumed office, the country was experiencing high inflation, a recession, and an energy crisis.
  • Signed the Emergency Natural Gas Act in February 1977, which gave him the authority to regulate natural gas prices.
  • Signed the The Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977 in August creating the Department of Energy.
  • Signed the Torrijos–Carter Treaties on September 7, 1977 in Washington, D.C. The two treaties related to the control of the Panama Canal Zone, which was then under the United States’ control. The two treaties ensured that Panama would gain control of the Canal after 1999.
  • In September 1978, Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar El Sadat of Egypt met at Camp David to discuss a peaceful resolution to the two nations’ conflict with President Carter mediating. The two leaders would sign the Camp David Accords on September 17, which later led to the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty in 1979.
  • Signed the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 in October. The law removed government control of airline fares and routes as well as the control of the entry of new airlines.
  • Signed the Chrysler Corporation Loan Guarantee Act of 1979, or Law H.R. 5860, in January, which bailed out the troubled Chrysler Corporation.
  • Signed the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) with the Soviet Union in June 1979. The treaty sought to reduce the manufacture of nuclear weapons by both countries.
  • Signed a bill establishing the Department of Education on October 17, 1979.
  • On November 4, 1979, Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans hostage. An attempt to rescue the hostages in April 1980, called “Desert One,” failed with the death of several U.S. military personnel. The hostages were released on January 20, 1981, Carter’s last day in office.
  • When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Carter asked Congress to table the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) treaty with the Soviet Union, which the U.S. had already signed but had not been ratified by the Senate.
  • Carter and the U.S. Olympic Committee decided to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow because of the Afghanistan invasion.
  • In answer to the energy crisis, Carter signed the National Energy Act of 1978 in November. The Act was a package of laws that included the Energy Tax Act, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, and the National Energy Conservation Policy Act.
  • Ran for a second term in the 1980 election but lost to Republican Ronald Reagan.


Carter speaking at the LBJ Library, 2011 Courtesy U.S. National Archives

Carter speaking at the LBJ Library, 2011
Courtesy U.S. National Archives

  • Retired to his peanut farm in Plains, Georgia.
  • Established the Carter Center in 1982 in collaboration with Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
  • Through his Carter Center, Carter has served as an unofficial ambassador working to resolve international disputes in the Middle East, particularly the Israel–Palestine conflict, with North Korea, and in Africa.
  • The Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta, Georgia was opened and dedicated on October 1, 1986.
  • Went to North Korea in 1994 on behalf of President Bill Clinton to persuade Kim Il-Sung to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. Carter succeeded in negotiating a treaty between the U.S. and North Korea, called the Agreed Framework, which was signed in October 1994.
  • Traveled to Haiti in 1994 with Gen. Colin Powell and Sen. Sam Nunn to meet with military offficials who overthrew the Haiti President in a coup d’etat in 1991. The purpose of the mission was to avert an American invasion of Haiti to restore to power its democratically elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
  • In 1999, brokered a deal between the Presidents of Uganda and Sudan to resolve the conflict in northern Uganda. The deal was called the Nairobi Agreement.
  • Severed ties with Southern Baptist Convention in October 2000 over its decision to bar women from becoming pastors.
  • Visited Cuba in May 2002 and met with Fidel Castro. He was the first U.S. President to visit the country since the Cuban Revolution in 1959 that brought Castro to power.
  • Received the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts “to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”
  • In July 2007, Carter announced his participation in The Elders, a group of former world leaders working on issues concerning peace and human rights.
  • Visited Vietnam in 2009 to build houses for the poor as part of the project of Habitat for Humanity International.
  • Has written 21 books post-presidency.
  • Serves as honorary chair for the Continuity of Government Commission.
  • Is the longest-lived President, post-presidency, at 32 years.


Detailed Biography

Born on 1 October 1924, James Earl Carter Junior, known commonly as Jimmy Carter is a Georgian Naval officer and politician who became the 39th President of the United States of America for one term in 1977.


Parents & Grandparents

The Carter family have been born and raised in Georgia for a number of generations. A direct male line can be traced back to England in the late 17thcentury, with Moore Carter who was born on the Isle of Wight in 1688. He married Jane Kindred and the couple had five children and moved to America at some point in their lives, settling in Virginia. Their son Isaac moved from Virginia to North Carolina in the late 18thcentury and his son James moved to Georgia in the early 19thcentury. It is from this branch of the family that Jimmy is descended. Since the early 19thcentury, the Carter family lived, worked, married and died in Georgia.

Jimmy’s grandfather, William Archibald Carter was born in 1848. He married Nina Pratt and together the couple had five children, two sons and three daughters, including James Earl who was born in 1894 and the family were living and working in Rowena Georgia. William was killed in 1903 following an argument which turned into murder when he was shot in the head by his assailant. Some records claim that Nina was pregnant at the time with the couple’s youngest daughter, although this is not confirmed. After the murder, the family moved to Plains, Georgia so that they could be nearer to family and therefore Nina could get some help raising her children.

James Earl Carter, Jimmy’s father, was enrolled at the Riverside Military Academy where he was educated until 10thgrade when he left school and began working as a travelling salesman. He worked hard and eventually made enough money to allow him to invest in his own business, that of storing and selling ice to the local community.

In 1917, as the US Army was calling for soldiers to serve in World War One, a twenty-three-year-old James enlisted in the army to serve in the war. He initially joined as a private, but advanced through the ranks to sergeant, and was then selected for officer training, however he finished his training at the end of November 1918 but due to the fact the war ended at the beginning of the month, it meant that James did not serve active duty in the war, instead being commissioned to the Georgia National Guard.

When he left the army, James decided to take a leap in the business world, moving away from the work he did before the war, and instead opened a grocery store in Plains Georgia. This was not instantly successful, and James had to work hard to build the company, using innovative ways to maximise profits. He worked from sunrise until sunset and every day of the week except Sunday.

James married Bessie Lillian Gordy in September of 1923 in Plains, Georgia. Lillian, as she was commonly known, had been born and raised in Richland Georgia. She had volunteered as a nurse in the US Army during world war one, but the programme was cancelled and so she followed a career in nursing in Georgia instead. She moved to Plains in 1920 and worked as a trainee at a Sanatorium in the town before completing her nursing degree at the Grady Memorial Hospital School of Nursing. Her family did not approve of her working as a nurse, however, she was strong in character and became very successful in her field which eventually gained her family’s approval. She also fought hard for equal rights, becoming known for welcoming guests into her home through the front door regardless of whether she was black or white, a very liberal view for the times and one which she had been party to since she was a child. Her father ran a post office, and fostered equal rights, dining with his black employees and treating all his employees the same. Lillian followed in the steps of her father and crossed racial divides in her work, counselling black women on health care issues in the local community.

Lillian and James met sometime in Lillian’s final year of nursing studies, and they married as soon as she graduated from her degree in 1923. Lillian later said that their marriage was difficult at times, and they had to work together to make it work, but that there was a great amount of love. James and Lillian had four children together, James Earl Junior who was born on 1 October 1924, a year after marriage. Their other children include Gloria born in 1926, Ruth born in 1929 and another son William Alton, known as Billy, who was born a number of years later in 1937.


Childhood and Education

When Jimmy was four, the family moved from Plains to Archery, about two miles away, where James bought the family a new home. It was a much more rural town than Plains, where horse-drawn wagons were still the most common form of transport and electricity and indoor plumbing was still rare.

James opened another grocery store in their new town, and Jimmy worked in the store with his father from the age of ten and was described as a studious, quiet boy and his favourite way to spend his leisure time was to listen to the radio with his family. His parents were deeply religious, and they insisted that all their children attend the local Sunday school at Plains Baptist Church. Alongside Sunday school, Jimmy attended Plains High School, which was an all-white school. Black pupils were not allowed to attend and were educated at home or church instead.

Despite the extreme levels of segregation in his community, Jimmy spent a lot of time with his African American neighbours, having two friends who he was very close with and spending time with his nanny Annie Mae Hollis.

Jimmy’s father worked hard in the grocery store, and even through the great depression they managed to continue to grow the business. Eventually by the late 1930’s James Carter had over two hundred employees, many of whom were African American and who were not subject to segregation within the workplace.

In 1941 Jimmy graduated from high school, the first child from his father’s side of the family to do so. He began to study engineering at Georgia Southwestern Junior College, but decided soon after that he wanted to transfer to Georgia Institute of Technology and join the Naval ROTC programme which is a college-based training programme whose purpose was to produce a reserve of qualified officers who would be needed for a possible rapid expansion of the military in the case of an unforeseen emergency. Given the fact that the second world war was ongoing, and America had just joined the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, it is possible that the young Jimmy wanted to prepare for a time when he might be needed to serve in the war whilst also studying for an engineering degree for his future.

In 1943, following the completion of his studies at Georgia Institute of Technology, Jimmy successfully applied for a place at the highly competitive Naval Academy in Indianapolis, Maryland. Unfortunately, due to his quiet nature and relatively short stature, he was teased and mocked by his peers, but this did not perturb him and he worked hard, graduating in the top 10% of his class in 1946. Whilst studying at the Academy, Jimmy had reconnected with a local girl from back home, called Rosalynn Smith whom he had known as a child. During Summer breaks, when he would return home, Jimmy and Rosalynn met and began dating. They married in June 1946 when Jimmy graduated from the Academy.

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith, known as Rosalynn, was born in October 1927 in Plains Georgia as the eldest of four children of Wilburn Edgar Smith a mechanic and farmer, and Frances Allethea “Allie” Murray Smith, a dressmaker. Rosalynn had ambitions to become an architect and leave Plains, but when she was thirteen her father died and the family, which were not affluent to start with, became very poor. In order to help her mother, and keep the family solvent, she helped her mother with her dressmaking business alongside her studies, and whilst she did graduate high school and attend Georgia Southwestern College she later dropped out, not completing her degree due to the demands from her family and home life. She had planned to attend the Georgia State College for Women to study interior design, but in the meantime she met and married Jimmy and became a full-time wife and mother, therefore ending her educational aspirations. Rosalynn reputedly saw a picture of Jimmy in his naval uniform and developed a crush on him before the two started formally dating.


Naval Career & Family Duties 

Following his graduation from the Naval Academy, Jimmy and Rosalynn found themselves moving around the country as Jimmy worked in the submarine division of the Navy. Between 1946 and 1952 the family lived in Virginia, Hawaii, Connecticut, New York and California.

During these years, the Carter’s had three sons, John William who was born in 1947, James Earl Carter III, born in 1950, and Donnel Jeffrey, born in 1952.

In 1952 Jimmy was assigned to the US Navy’s fledgeling nuclear submarine programme, which at the time was led by Admiral Hyman Rickover, in New York. The Admiral was notorious for being demanding and very strict on the officers. Despite this hard and strict ruling, Jimmy highly admired the Admiral, and has since stated that “second to my father, Rockover had more effect on my life than any other man.”

However, Jimmy’s naval career was cut short in 1953 when he discovered that his father was ill with pancreatic cancer. Whilst Rosalynn was vehemently opposed to moving back to Georgia, Jimmy insisted on moving the entire family back to Plains in Georgia so that he could support his mother and the family business. The family farm had been struggling financially and in terms of its management, especially when James Carter was in the later stages of his illness, and so Jimmy took over the management of the company and turned its fortunes around. He also became a lot more involved in local politics, engaging with local causes and taking a seat on the Sumter County Board of Education in 1955, a role which eventually changed into Chairman in later years.


Political Beginnings

The 1950’s was a pivotal time in American history where a number of high profile legal cases, including the landmark Supreme Court ruling of Brown vs. the Board of Education, where it was ruled that all American’s should have access to equal and fair education, regardless of their race or religion, began to bring an end to segregation and laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement which would be so influential in the 60’s.  Key characters such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks were speaking around this time, and they gave a voice to black Americans and challenged those who were against equal rights for black Americans. In 1957 the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine African American students enrolled at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, integrated the school when they enrolled and whilst they were initially prevented from entering the school, key politicians such as President Eisenhower, aided the students in their campaign. The legal case of Brown vs. the Board of Education then ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional and that all schools should be desegregated. Whilst this was adopted in some schools, others fought the rulings, but it was certainly a key turning point in the fight for equality in the country.

Jimmy Carter and his family were firm supporters of desegregation, and Jimmy was the only white man in Plains, to refuse to join a segregationist group called the White Citizens Council. For this, he was verbally abused by his white neighbours including a sign which was pinned to his door telling him that he should leave the state with all of the African American inhabitants. Whilst the country was changing, it was a slow process and it wasn’t until 1962 that the Supreme Court ruled that voting districts be redrawn in a way that put an end to privileging rural white voters, that real change began to happen.

It was around this time that Jimmy Carter began to see an opportunity within the politics of the state and the south in general for a “new southerner” as he considered himself to be, someone more liberal and with a different mindset from the conservative south. In 1962, Carter ran for the Georgia State Senate, but the election was fraudulent, and whilst Carter’s opponent, Homer Moore won, the outcome was overturned by a Georgia judge who declared Carter the true winner

Carter served two terms as senator and gained a reputation for being firm-minded and independent, bringing about changes in the state through changes in government spending and promoting the civil rights movement.

In 1966 he decided to run for Governor, however in the still conservative state, his liberal views were vastly outnumbered by conservative ones, and so he lost the race, coming in a forgettable third place. The victor was white segregationist Lester Maddox who had infamously barred the doors of his restaurant and brandished an axe to ward off black customers. Luckily for Carter though, Governors in Georgia could serve only one term, and so he immediately began a campaign for the next election.

This time he changed tactic and his campaign strategy consisted of leaving most of his liberal ideas behind, limiting his public mingling with black people and instead working to get the support of the segregationist public and noted figures such as Lester Maddox. This turn in tactic infuriated and disappointed all of Carter’s previous supporters, so much so that several publications at the time called him a “racist”, “backwards” and a “redneck.” It was clear though, that Carter was playing the politics game, and the tactic worked when in 1970 he garnered enough support and votes to win the election to Governor of Georgia.

It was around this time, in 1967 that Rosalynn and Jimmy’s ony daughter Amy was born.

Upon appointment as Governor, Carter instantly renounced the segregationist principles that he had been campaigning for, and returned to his true liberal ideals, calling for an end to segregation and appointing a number of black Americans to state government positions. He also worked to reform the state prisons and education system. He is mostly remembered during his time as Governor for streamlining state bureaucracy into a more efficient operation. Nevertheless, his actions during the campaign, as well a the fact that he regularly ignored political values and traditions, alienated a number of democratic VIPs whom he could have worked with during his tenure.



During the early 70’s Carter turned his eye towards the Presidency. Nixon was in power and Carter believed a Democratic “outsider” was needed for the ’76 election, a role he was keen to fulfil.

He was initially an underdog in the race for Democratic nominee, being one of ten candidates and being relatively unknown. However around this time, there was a great amount of animosity for politicians in general, especially after the Watergate scandal, and so Jimmy could use his unknown status, as well as his campaign strategy of being a “new politician for the people” to his advantage. He claimed that “I will never tell a lie” and “I’ll never avoid a controversial issue”, using the slogan “a leader, for a change.” These words and Carter’s campaign, in general, struck a chord with the public, who were still feeling betrayed by the Nixon administration.

The tactic worked, and he won the race to be nominated as the Democratic nominee for the 1976 election, challenging Gerald Ford who had been Nixon’s Vice President and was running as the Republican nominee after stepping in as President after Nixon’s resignation.

Whilst the public were still sceptical of a Ford Republican presidency, and Carter entered the race for President with a double-digit lead over Ford, he made several errors during the campaign, including making lewd comments regarding infidelity within marriage, and even suggesting he might have been unfaithful to his wife in thoughts, although apparently not in actions.  These comments narrowed his lead and gave him stiffer competition than initially predicted. Nevertheless, despite these setbacks, Carter led a successful campaign for change in the American political system, and he won the 1976 election, to become the 39thPresident of the United States of America.

One of his main domestic policies was to reduce America’s dependency on foreign oil, especially after the oil embargo of 1973 where there was a drastic shortage across the nation. He worked on reducing consumption across the country by 8% and built up huge emergency stores, but unfortunately, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 drove prices up again, and Carter’s achievements were overshadowed.

In terms of foreign policy, Carter worked primarily on human rights aiming to make them a primary concern of the US and other key partner countries. This included suspending US aid to countries whose regimes committed human rights violations, such as Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua. He also worked on the mediation of the Camp David Accords, an agreement between Israel and Egypt to bring peace to the two nations, a move that was seen as one of the biggest achievements of his presidency.

Nevertheless, these successes were overshadowed in terms of viewing Carter’s presidency in terms of being a success or a failure. He had a bad relationship with Congress and the Senate and as a result he failed to pass legislation, and he also delivered a disastrous speech which became later known as the “crisis of confidence speech” where Carter blamed the American people for the country’s problems, stating that they did not have confidence as a result of events throughout the 60’s and 70’s.

However, the biggest perceived failure and a reason for his decline in popularity was his reaction to the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979. In November of that year, Iranian students had stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and had taken 66 American hostages. The Carter administration failed to negotiate with the captors and botched an attempt to rescue the hostages. The affair made him look even more incompetent in the eyes of the public, and as the crisis continued, eventually lasting 444 days whilst Carter campaigned for re-election, the public were enraged that he did not do anything.

It was during 1980, whilst the crisis was ongoing, that Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan was announced as the Republican nominee for the 1980 presidential election. Reagan was a popular character and used the slogan “are you better off than you were four years ago?” which garnered him a great deal of support as many Americans did not feel they were any better off. The question undermined what little confidence the American people had in Carter and in November 1980, Reagan won the election and Carter was out of office.


Post Presidency

Despite what is largely considered to be a rather failed presidency, Carter has been lauded for his humanitarian work post-presidency. Soon after his presidency ended he founded the Carter Presidential Centre to promote human rights and to alleviate suffering across the world. He has also worked extensively with Habitat for Humanity and has worked for community-based health care causes in Africa and Latin America as well as promoting peace in the middle east.

“the bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices”

For this continued work, Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, for a commitment “to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”

“we can choose to allieviate suffering. We can choose to work together for peace. We can make these changes – and we must.”

Carter has also written a number of books beginning in 1975 and which he has continued up to the present day. His works include a number of memoirs, historical fiction books, self-help and advice books, and political non-fiction. His 32ndbook, Faith: A Journey for All was published in 2018, despite Carter battling cancer of the brain, a condition which has recently been reported to have retreated although he is still receiving treatment.

Jimmy and Rosalynn are still married and living in Georgia, and as of April 2018, Rosalynn became the oldest living First Lady of America.