From rooming houses to the White House: How humble beginnings can lead to greatness

When you think of some of the most influential leaders and visionaries throughout history, you might picture them living in grand homes or estates. But the truth is, many of them had very humble beginnings – residing in rented rooms or boarding houses, especially in their younger years. The practice of renting spare rooms has […]

May 12, 2024

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When you think of some of the most influential leaders and visionaries throughout history, you might picture them living in grand homes or estates. But the truth is, many of them had very humble beginnings – residing in rented rooms or boarding houses, especially in their younger years.

The practice of renting spare rooms has been around for centuries, providing affordable housing options for students, young professionals, and anyone just starting out. And a look back shows that some remarkably successful individuals spent time in these modest accommodations on their path to greatness.

America’s founding fathers and presidents

Several key figures in American history lived as renters in rooms or boarding houses at various points in their lives. A young Benjamin Franklin resided in rented lodgings in Philadelphia and London during his rise as a writer, inventor, and statesman. Alexander Hamilton bunked in a New York City boarding house while attending what is now Columbia University.

James Madison, the fourth U.S. President, rented rooms in Philadelphia while serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress. And the third President, Thomas Jefferson, paid for rented apartments and rooms in Williamsburg and Philadelphia as a young law student and congressman.

In more recent history, Presidents like Calvin Coolidge and Lyndon B. Johnson all resided in rooming houses early in their careers as lawyers, aides, and legislators, respectively.

Abraham Lincoln: A beacon of hope in Springfield

Abraham Lincoln, an enduring symbol of freedom and equality, spent a significant portion of his early political career residing in rooming houses. During his time as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln frequented various boarding houses, including the Globe Tavern and the Chenery House. These modest accommodations provided a respite for Lincoln between his legal duties and political endeavors, offering him a space to strategize, contemplate, and engage with fellow politicians and citizens alike.

Despite the challenges he faced, including financial hardships and the loss of loved ones, Lincoln’s time in these rooming houses shaped his character and convictions. It was in Springfield that he honed his skills as an orator, sharpened his legal acumen, and forged connections that would prove instrumental in his ascent to the presidency. The humble lodgings of his early years stood as a testament to his perseverance and resilience, serving as a poignant reminder of the humble origins from which greatness can emerge.

A tradition of humble beginnings

These anecdotes from the most revered leaders in U.S. history illustrate an important point — even world-changing innovators, thinkers, and builders of nations often start out with modest housing situations. Renting a room provided an affordable option as these figures established themselves.

By ensuring a plentiful supply of basic rental housing, we can keep that tradition alive today. We make room for the next generation of entrepreneurs, creatives, public servants, and leaders to pursue their ambitions without becoming housing insecure.

At PadSplit, we believe that providing housing opportunities gives future trailblazers a place to start their journeys toward shaping their communities and changing the world. We’ve already seen these success stories time and again when PadSplit members share how they used their savings to launch their own companies, buy their first homes, or pursue their creative passions.

The NIMBY threat

As we’ve established, renting rooms and modest accommodations played a vital role for many influential leaders when they were just starting their journeys. Yet today, there is often fierce opposition to new rooming houses in many communities.

The NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) mindset views these affordable housing options as threats to drive down property values or bring in “undesirable” residents. But this short-sighted mentality could be robbing society of its future trailblazers across every field.

Where would America be today if a young Lincoln couldn’t find an affordable room to rent in Springfield? What great scientific or cultural advances might we have missed if rising innovators like Franklin were rejected for housing in their prime? By shutting the door on rooming houses, we may be shutting out the very leaders, creators, and change-makers who could vastly improve our world.

While legitimate community concerns like safety must be addressed, an outright rejection of modest rental housing cuts off a vital pipeline of opportunity. It prevents those of modest means from following in the footsteps of the great figures who walked the same humble paths before achieving their greatness.

If we aspire for our communities to produce the next game-changing entrepreneurs, brilliant thinkers, and effective public servants, we must make room for them. Providing affordable rooming houses and rental options today helps cultivate the influential minds that will solve society’s greatest challenges tomorrow. Opposing that opportunity deprives us all.

P.S. The list of other notable figures who experienced life in a boarding house goes on:

  1. Walt Whitman
  2. Mark Twain
  3. W.E.B. Du Bois
  4. Theodore Dreiser
  5. Sinclair Lewis
  6. Edgar Allan Poe
  7. Harriet Jacobs
  8. Herman Melville
  9. Nathaniel Hawthorne
  10. Ezra Pound
  11. Hart Crane
  12. Langston Hughes
  13. Richard Wright
  14. Ralph Ellison
  15. Amiri Baraka
  16. Allen Ginsberg
  17. Jack Kerouac
  18. William S. Burroughs
  19. Charles Bukowski
  20. Raymond Carver
  21. Carson McCullers
  22. Tennessee Williams
  23. Arthur Miller
  24. Eugene O’Neill
  25. Clifford Odets
  26. Judy Garland
  27. Billie Holiday
  28. Ella Fitzgerald
  29. Louis Armstrong
  30. Count Basie
  31. B.B. King
  32. Muddy Waters
  33. Sylvester Stallone
  34. Ray Charles

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