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Presidential fathers

By Michael J. Gerhardt


On Father’s Day, we rarely celebrate presidents, though we could. All but a handful of our presidents were fathers, and our first president, George Washington, is commonly regarded as the Father of our country. While of course nothing about being president necessarily makes anyone a better parent, many presidents have in fact had their legacies largely shaped by their relationships with their fathers and children. Only a few of these relationships have been examined at great length, especially those between John Adams and George H.W. Bush and their two sons, who each became president in their own right. While most others have been forgotten, remembering at least some of them would enrich our understanding of not only other presidencies but also the human dimensions of the presidency.

Consider just three examples. First, William Henry Harrison is known only as the first president to die in office. He is widely dismissed having been a non-entity as president since he died merely 31 days after his inauguration. Yet, Harrison came by his interest in politics honestly. He was the son of a distinguished politician, Benjamin Harrison V, who had been, among other things, a delegate to the Continental Congress, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and a Governor of Virginia. Before becoming president, William Henry Harrison had enjoyed a career in public service that rivaled his father and had 11 children, including one whom he named after his father. Another one of his sons, John, had 10 children himself, including one whom he named Benjamin. Benjamin was eight years old when his grandfather became president. When Benjamin became president in 1888, he was determined not to fade into obscurity as his grandfather had done. He accomplished a surprising amount in his one term in office, including making four Supreme Court appointments (the fourth most by a president in a single term) and signing several landmark pieces of legislation, including the Sherman Antitrust Act. However when his wife died in the midst of his reelection campaign, he lost whatever desire he had left for public service. He subsequently married his deceased wife’s niece and former secretary, and lived out his remaining days estranged from his other children but active as both a distinguished lawyer and father to their young child.

Franklin Pierce was a president who was heavily influenced by his son. Most historians dismiss Pierce as a weak, ineffective president. Yet Pierce’s presidency cannot be understood without recognizing the tragedy before it. As he, his wife, and young son traveled to Washington for his inauguration, the railcar in which they were riding came off the tracks and Pierce and his wife watched helplessly as the train rolled down an embankment, their son crushed to death. Pierce’s wife Jane never recovered. She spent most of her time in the White House shunning her husband and blaming him for the death of their son. The effect on Pierce himself was hard. He opened his inaugural address by asking the American people to give him strength. Throughout his presidency, he looked for solace in religion and in the company of a very few people whom he liked and trusted. Among these was Jefferson Davis, who wielded enormous influence over Pierce as his Secretary of War. Davis, along with Senator Stephen Douglas, persuaded Pierce to abandon his campaign pledge to maintain the Missouri Compromise (which barred slavery in certain federal territories) and instead to sign into law a bill that allowed the new States of Kansas and Nebraska the sovereignty to decide for themselves on whether to allow or bar slavery. Pierce’s decision to side with the pro-slavery forces in Kansas, supported by Davis, among others, provoked civil war in Kansas. After failing to be re-nominated for president by his own party (the last sitting president to have failed to have done so), he blamed abolitionists for the Civil War and looked for solace in alcohol, which eventually killed him.

William Howard Taft, like William Henry Harrison, came from Ohio and a political family. Taft’s father served as both Secretary of War and Attorney General in Grant’s administration, and he instilled within his son William a strong passion for public service. By the time he became president, William Howard Taft had assembled one of the most distinguished records of public service of any president, including service as Secretary of War and federal court of appeals judge. Unlike Harrison, Taft made it through one term, though he did not enjoy it. He wanted instead to become Chief Justice of the United States, a position he achieved almost a decade after losing reelection in 1916. Taft had three children, including one son, Robert, whom he named after the first Taft to settle in this country. Robert’s son, Robert Jr., became an influential senator from Ohio and strong contender for the presidency in the 1950s. Bob Taft, Jr., shared his grandfather’s staunch conservatism and became a model for conservative senators throughout the remainder of the 20th century.

One of the conservatives whom William Howard Taft strongly influenced was Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge was a little known Governor of Massachusetts when he became Warren Harding’s running mate and Vice-President. After Harding died, Coolidge won Americans’ confidence when he helped to oversee the investigation into the corruption in Harding’s — and his own — administration. When he nominated the Attorney General he had brought in to clean up the Justice Department, Harland Fiske Stone, to the Supreme Court, Stone made history himself as the first Supreme Court nominee to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. By 1924, Coolidge was so popular that he easily won election to the presidency in his own right. Unfortunately, by then, he had lost his interest in the job. Just before the election, his beloved son, Cal, died from a freak accident he had suffered while playing tennis bare foot on the White House tennis court. Coolidge became eager to leave the presidency and did little to help his Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, in his presidential bid in 1928. When Coolidge died shortly before Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration, most Americans had either forgotten him or dismissed him as a relic of the past.

These other presidents, who both influenced and were influenced by their children, are reminders that in the end presidents are people too. They are not just powerful leaders but also, sometimes more importantly, fathers; and the pride and pain they felt as fathers were at least as important to them as anything they did in office.

Michael Gerhardt is Samuel Ashe Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. A nationally recognized authority on constitutional conflicts, he has testified in several Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and has published several books, including The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional Legacy. Read his previous blog post “The presidents that time forgot.”

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