A History of the Presidency - Presidential children

The constant presence of the presidents in the public eye has also generated a continuing interest not only in First Ladies, but also in the children of presidents. The offspring have played the role of stand-ins for the princes and princesses of monarchies and fairy tales. Indeed, Alice Roosevelt, the child of Theodore Roosevelt and Alice Lee Roosevelt, his first, late wife, was often referred to in the press as Princess Alice, her name given to a popular shade, labeled Alice blue. She wrote later: "I was the daughter of an enormously popular President and I looked upon the world as my oyster." Other First Daughters have not fared as well. Molly Garfield, just turned fourteen years old in 1881, was only in the White House eight months when her father succumbed to an assassin's bullet. And Gerald Ford's (1974–1977) daughter Susan lamented that living there was like living in a "cross between reform school and a convent."

Presidential children are treated with deference when they are young and regarded as extensions of their parents when they are older. The son of President Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, known affectionately to the public as John-John, became world famous as a mere three-year old in a picture published around the world that showed him saluting the casket of his martyred father. Years later John junior's death in an airplane crash in 1999 evoked national mourning. The one presidential son who as a boy may have altered American history was Robert Todd Lincoln. Having failed the entrance examination to Harvard College in fifteen out of sixteen subjects, he was enrolled in Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in order to "bone up." Eager to visit and encourage him there, his father came east in 1860, lured by a fortuitous invitation to address the Cooper Union Institute in New York City for a fee of $200 and expenses. That address became a key factor in spreading Lincoln's fame and making possible his nomination for the presidency the following month.

Presidents and the First Ladies have all kept keenly in mind the difficulties that their prominence creates for their sons and daughters. But for her father's presidency, Jenna Bush's brush with the law involving an underage drinking violation in Texas in 2001 would not have been public knowledge. Several first families have made earnest efforts to shelter their children not only from public exposure but also from the effects of the flattery and luxury that flow toward them. Chester A. Arthur notably tried to shield his daughter Nell from the world. The Kennedys hoped that the media would keep the spotlight off their daughter, Caroline. The media were respectful of the similar strong wishes of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton for their only child, Chelsea.

Still, the doings of children in the White House especially in times of crisis have added to the president's appeal by making him seem ordinary even though the public expects him also to be extraordinary. During the Great Depression, Sistie and Buzzie Dahl, the children of the Roosevelts' daughter, Anna, and her husband, came to be national personages. Even during the agony of the Civil War, the Northern public was amused to hear that Tad Lincoln, only eight years old in 1861, had led a team of goats through the executive mansion. And a generation later, Theodore Roosevelt did not object when his lively children introduced a pony into the Blue Room and walked on stilts across the elegant broadloom carpeting. Amy Carter, just turned nine years old when her father became president, "slept over" occasionally in the tree house her parents had had constructed for her on a White House lawn.

No one can seriously believe that the children of presidents serve as models for the nation's young people. Still, their doings are constantly on display. And they think of themselves as a group with a special bond. Susan Ford said recently "I know when I run into Luci [Johnson] and Lynda [Johnson] and Julie [Nixon] and we all go, 'And do you remember this?' there's only a few people who realize what it's like." In 1959 the largest gathering of the offspring of presidents took place at a "Life with Father" luncheon hosted by the Women's National Press Club in celebration of its fortieth anniversary. Afterward the Eisenhowers received the invitees at the White House. Nine of the sixteen living presidential children, and grandchildren up to six "greats" dating back to John Adams attended. It was a non-political get-together but Helen Taft insisted that the children of the conservative presidents before World War I had had more fun than the children of the later liberal chief executives. She recalled that they slid down the state stairways on trays and had played hide and seek all over the White House.

A few presidential sons may have added special luster to their parents' reputation by virtue of their military service. Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of Theodore and Edith Roosevelt, perished in an air duel over France in 1918 during World War I, the only child of a presidential couple killed in action for his country. Two other Roosevelts were wounded in the war, leading Roosevelt to say proudly, "Haven't I bully boys, one dead and two in the hospital." Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. landed in the first wave at Normandy in 1944 at the age of fifty-seven, and died of a heart attack a month later. He was awarded posthumously the Congressional Medal of Honor.

This highest military decoration had been won also by Webb C. Hayes, son of Rutherford and Lucy Hayes (1877–1881), for gallantry in the Philippines campaign during the Spanish-American War when he infiltrated the enemy lines alone at night. In the Civil War, sons of presidents fought on both sides. Five presidential sons were active in the Confederate cause. Two of John Tyler's sons, David and John, left school as mere striplings to wear the gray uniform. The only son of Zachary and Margaret Taylor, Robert Taylor, saw heavy action as a brigadier general in the Confederate army, having been appointed by Jefferson Davis. He was killed when he was thrown from his horse. He had served as military aide to his father during the Mexican War and as his private secretary during his presidency. Charles Johnson, the son of Andrew and Eliza McCardle Johnson, was an assistant surgeon with the Middle Tennessee Infantry. Shortly before the end of the war he, too, was thrown by his horse and killed. Son Robert was a Union Army colonel who resigned after his father became president in order to serve as his secretary. Frederick Dent Grant was only eleven years old when the Civil War broke out but he often accompanied his father into battle, and was slightly wounded in the Battle of Vicksburg. He was a seasoned soldier at the time he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1866. All four of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's sons were in uniform during World War II, and all of them saw heavy action.

John Eisenhower, the only child of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, also a West Pointer, was a major in combat in Korea when his father was nominated by the Republican party in 1952. John's superiors immediately forbade him to lead hazardous patrols lest he be captured and turned into an invaluable hostage. An effect was to damage his chances for promotion. Subsequently, Truman sent for him to be present at his father's inauguration. As Eisenhower rode with Truman to the Capitol, keenly aware of the likely damage done to his son's career, he angrily asked the outgoing president who had ordered his son home. Truman bluntly answered that he had taken that action as commander-in-chief.

Sons of presidents have served in high places in presidential administrations after their fathers', no doubt trading on their name. Robert Lincoln served as secretary of war for Presidents Garfield and Arthur. James R. Garfield was secretary of the interior under Theodore Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover, Jr. was undersecretary of state for three years in the Eisenhower presidency. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. was undersecretary of commerce in the Kennedy administration and was elected to Congress from New York three times in the 1980s. James Roosevelt, another son, served in the House from his district in California for six terms beginning in 1954. Harry A. Garfield, the president's eldest son, was for twenty-five years president of Williams College in the early twentieth century. In the same era, John Tyler's youngest son, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, born after his father's term, was president of William and Mary College. John Eisenhower, who has written some well-regarded books of military history, was named by Nixon as ambassador to Belgium.

In general, presidential children have not cast discredit on their parents reputation, even when they have not reflected glory on them. In a more straitlaced time than the present, the many divorces of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's five children (they accumulated fourteen among them) caused no political repercussions. And Ronald Reagan's widespread popularity was not affected by the pinpricks he endured from his offspring. Maureen, a child of the president's first marriage to Jane Wyman, raised the eyebrows of many Americans when she reported having seen Lincoln's ghost in the White House. The president's adopted son, Michael, wrote an exposé of his troubled childhood that he tellingly called On the Outside Looking In (1988). And in 1986 Patricia Ann Reagan (known professionally as Patti Davis) published a devastating roman à clef about the Reagans entitled Home Front.

Several presidential children died while their fathers were in the White House. Willy Lincoln, eleven years old, succumbed to a "bilious fever" in 1862. Calvin Coolidge, Jr., sixteen years old in 1924, fell a victim of blood poisoning that resulted from a blister on his foot after playing tennis on a White House court. Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, two days old, in 1963 succumbed to hyaline membrane disease, an ailment of newborns. John Quincy Adams's son, George Washington Adams, while mentally de-ranged, jumped or fell from a steamer in Long Island Sound at the age of twenty-eight in 1829. Young Adams's uncle Charles, the second son of John Adams, had died a drunkard's death in 1800. With characteristic candor the second president had expressed his unspeakable anguish over the youth: "I renounce him. King David's Absolom had some ambition and some enterprise. Mine is a mere rake, buck, blood, and beast." Franklin and Jane Appleton Pierce's only surviving son, Benny, eleven years old, was killed before his parents' eyes in a railroad accident two months before the father took office. Mrs. Pierce was so grief-stricken that she did not attend the inauguration, and forever blamed her husband's political ambition for their irreparable loss.

The effect on the presidencies of which these sons were a part cannot be measured. The Lincolns were famously inconsolable, and Coolidge wrote in his autobiography that "when [young Calvin] went, the power and glory of the Presidency went with him....I don't know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House." The Clevelands' first child, Ruth, whose death of diphtheria at the age of twelve, a few years after they left the White House, crushed her parents, had been known as Baby Ruth. Her memory survives in the name of a candy bar still popular.

In pre-feminist days, presidents' daughters were sometimes judged by the kind of marriages they made. Zachary Taylor's daughter Sarah Knox Taylor was wedded to Jefferson Davis in 1835—despite her parents' impassioned objection—this before either her father or her husband had become a national figure. Eleanor Wilson in 1914 married William Gibbs McAdoo, the secretary of the treasury, a marriage that later ended in divorce. She died a recluse in India. In an elaborate White House wedding in 1906, Alice Roosevelt became the bride of Nicholas Long-worth, a congressman from Ohio who years later served as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Margaret Wilson, Woodrow and Ellen Axson Wilson's second daughter, and Margaret Truman, Harry and Bess Wallace Truman's only child, were aspiring concert singers. In a moment of pique, Truman denounced in a well-publicized letter the hostile review on Margaret's talent that appeared in the Washington Post. She would afterward write of the difficult position her father's office placed her in: "If some critics condoned or over praised me because of my political position, others accused me of trading on my father's prestige." In later years she was the author of several books of crime fiction. Helen Taft served as hostess in the White House during her mother's incapacity. She made her social debut there in 1910 in a pink chiffon dress, a color that came to be labeled "Helen pink." She earned a Ph.D. from Yale and had a notable career as dean and professor of history at Bryn Mawr College, where her authoritarian style became legendary.

Only two presidential sons have returned to the White House as presidents themselves. John and Abigail Adams's son, John Quincy, was elected in early 1825 in the House of Representatives. On that occasion his father said: "No man who ever held the office of President would congratulate a friend on obtaining it." Still, he could not suppress his boundless pride: "The multitude of my thoughts and the intensity of my feelings are too much for a mind like mine, in its ninetieth year." When George W. Bush, the son of George and Barbara Bush, was elected in 2000, the elder Bush's emotions were no less intense, and he playfully referred to his son for a while as "Quincy" or simply "Q." Father and son also joshed each other as "41" and "43," a reference to their numbered places on the roll of the presidents. When the war against terrorism began in 2001, the elder Bush said he and the embattled commander-in-chief talked to each other regularly. "It's not always about policy. It's not, 'What do you think, Dad, I should be doing?' It is more the relationship of a very close family staying in touch."

In 1848, John Van Buren, the second of the four sons of Martin and Hannah Van Buren, was prominently mentioned as a potential candidate for the Free Soil Party. He withdrew from consideration in favor of his father. An earnest band of Whigs in 1856 had boomed for president, John Scott Harrison, son of William Henry Harrison and Anna Symmes Harrison. In dismissing the notion of his candidacy the younger Harrison said forthrightly that his backers efforts were "calculated too largely on the potency of a name." He served in the House for two terms in the 1850s as a Whig. And he and his wife, Elizabeth Irwin Harrison were the parents of President Benjamin Harrison, making him the only son and father of a president. In a bizarre incident in 1878, John Scott Harrison's body was stolen by grave robbers who sold it to a medical school in Cincinnati, where his horrified son John by chance discovered it hanging from a rope.

Robert Todd Lincoln, the sole surviving son of the Lincolns, in 1884 received eight votes for president at the Republican National Convention. Four years later a group of Republican planners imagined that he could be an admirable running mate for a ticket headed by Frederick Dent Grant and that a Grant-Lincoln ticket would be a sure winner. In the 1940s and early 1950s Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, the son of William Howard and Helen Herron Taft, widely regarded as "Mr. Republican," ardently sought the Republican nomination. He was overwhelmed at successive conventions by Wendell L. Willkie of Indiana in 1940, Thomas Dewey of New York in 1944 and 1948, and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952.

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