NPS Logo

Historical Background

Biographical Sketches

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Suggested Reading

THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

THE families of John Quincy Adams, the two Harrisons, Taft, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Kennedy had already achieved national fame before they came to office. John Quincy Adams was the son of President and signer of the Declaration of Independence John Adams. Benjamin Harrison, whose father was a U.S. Congressman, was the grandson of Chief Executive William Henry Harrison and the great-grandson of Benjamin Harrison, another signer of the Declaration. Taft's father served as Secretary of War, Attorney General, and Minister to both Austria-Hungary and Russia. Kennedy's father was Ambassador to Great Britain. William Henry Harrison, Tyler, and Pierce were the sons of Governors. Several other fathers served in State legislatures.

Eisenhower was one of the three career soldiers who rose to the highest office in the land. Here, as a yound second lieutenant, in 1916, he poses at Denver on his wedding day with his bride, "Mamie." (Eisenhower Presidential Library)

Except for Buchanan, all the Presidents were married at some time during their lives. Five—Tyler, Fillmore, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, and Wilson—were wed twice, all after their first wives died. No Chief Executive has been divorced, though Jackson, Harding, and Ford married divorced women. Six (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Fillmore, Benjamin Harrison and Wilson) wed widows.

Four individuals (Jefferson, Jackson, Van Buren, and Arthur) were widowers when they entered the White House. Cleveland, a bachelor at the time, married there, the only President to do so. Tyler and Wilson were remarried, though not in the Executive Mansion, during their terms of office.

THE First Ladies have been as diverse in appearance, personality, talents, and achievements as their spouses. Although a number have been reserved and avoided the limelight, especially before the 20th century, almost all of them in one way or the other have encouraged their husbands and contributed substantially to their careers. Two instances stand out. Eliza McCardle, who married Andrew Johnson when he was a struggling young tailor, taught him to write and improved his reading ability. Edith Bolling Galt Wilson helped manage her husband's affairs while he was incapacitated with a stroke near the end of his second term.

All in all, the wives have injected charm and graciousness into the White House and served the Nation in various other ways. While aiding their husbands and raising their children, they have managed the household, sometimes supervised refurnishing and remodelings of the mansion, and entertained world dignitaries.

The First Ladies have contributed to the Nation in a variety of ways. Mrs. Calvin Coolidge served with the Red Cross. (Library of Congress)

The First Ladies have also taken part in civic-patriotic organizations and devoted themselves to worthwhile causes. Particularly in the 20th century, as the role of women in the country's life has intensified, the First Ladies have participated in such national programs as beautification of the environment, antipoverty activities, mental health, and women's rights.

A considerable number of the ladies have been well educated and widely traveled. A few have pursued professional careers of their own. Several were teachers. Eleanor Roosevelt's achievements are especially notable, particularly after Franklin succumbed. She advanced numerous humanitarian causes, wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column, played a key role in Democratic Party affairs, sat in the U.S. delegation to the General Assembly of the United Nations (U.N.), and served as the U.S. member of the Human Rights Commission of the U.N. Economic and Social Council.

Dolley Madison
Two eminent First Ladies, Dolley Madison (above) gained distinction for her social graces; Eleanor Roosevelt, for her humanitarianism. (Oil, undated, by Gilbert Stuart, Pennsylvania Acadaemy of Fine Arts)

THIRTY-TWO of the 38 Chief Executives and their wives have had children and some of those who had none of their own (Washington, Madison, Jackson, Polk, Harding, and bachelor Buchanan) adopted or cared for those of their wives by earlier marriages or for those of close relatives or friends. In this category are Washington, Madison, and Jackson; and Buchanan acted as father to his niece, who served as his White House hostess. Tyler, by two wives, fathered the most children, 15.

The children of about two-thirds of the Presidents were fully grown or at least young adults while their fathers served in the White House. Only 11 raised young children (age 12 and under) there: Tyler, Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Kennedy, and Carter. The only child of a President ever to be born in the White House was a daughter of Cleveland.

The sons, as well as other descendants, of a large number of Chief Executives have led distinguished careers. John Quincy Adams, son of John, won the Presidency, as well as other distinction, as did also Benjamin, the grandson of William Henry Harrison. Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy, served as U.S. Representative and Minister to Great Britain. Other Adams progeny, John Quincy II, Charles Francis, Jr., Henry, and Brooks, excelled in politics, literature, and historiography. John Van Buren, John Scott Harrison (son of William Henry Harrison and father of Benjamin), David G. Tyler, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., and James Roosevelt were all Members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Robert Tyler was Register of the Confederate Treasury; Lyon G. Tyler, president of the College of William and Mary; Richard Taylor, Confederate general; Robert Todd Lincoln, Secretary of War and Minister to Great Britain; Frederick D. Grant, Minister to Austria-Hungary; Gen. Harry A. Garfield, president of Williams College and Fuel Administrator during World War I; James R. Garfield, U.S. Civil Service Commissioner and Secretary of the Interior; Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of Puerto Rico, and Governor-General of the Philippines; and Robert A. Taft, U.S. Senator.

Just a few parents of Presidents survived to see their sons enter the White House, though most witnessed their early successes. The mothers of Washington, John Adams, Madison, Polk, Garfield, McKinley, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman, and Carter, the step mothers of Lincoln, Harding, and Ford, and the fathers of John Quincy Adams, Fillmore, Harding, and Coolidge survived through their children's inaugurations. Coolidge's father even enjoyed the unique privilege of swearing in his son.

In addition to these, both parents of Grant and Kennedy lived to see their sons assume the highest office in the land. Kennedy's two parents also survived his assassination, as did Lincoln's stepmother and Garfield's mother. The mother of Polk was the only other one to outlive her son. George Harding and Joseph Kennedy were the only fathers to survive their sons. Abigail Adams had the distinction of being the wife of one President and the mother of another.

The untimely deaths of either or both parents sometimes brought difficult circumstances to future Presidents' families. Jackson and Hayes were posthumous sons. Other widowed mothers with young children include those of Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Andrew Johnson, Garfield, Cleveland, and Hoover. The mothers of Jackson and Hoover also succumbed at early ages themselves and left their children as orphans. Lincoln and Coolidge lost their mothers when they were quite young, though stepmothers took over the task of raising them. Tyler's mother died when he was 7 years of age, and his father never remarried. Ford was adopted by his stepfather, his mother's second husband.

Previous Next
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004