Most American presidents live in the public eye for much of their adult lives, even before and after their tenure as Commander in Chief. Many came from political families, served in smaller political offices prior to their election, or were legends of the wars they fought in.
Sometimes it's easy to forget these leading men were (or are) also sons, husbands, brothers, and even fathers. It makes you wonder what presidents were like when the cameras were off and the journalists' pens were still: how JFK was as a father, if Teddy Roosevelt was as kind and compassionate toward his children as he was toward the nation, or what it was like having a war hero like Ulysses S. Grant for a dad.
The office of President of the United States requires a certain image of propriety. But when you're serving as president and simultaneously raising children, how is this achieved? What really goes on behind the White House doors? If you've ever been curious to find out what the First Children thought of their parents, this is the list for you.
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Known for his seriousness as well as his kindness and compassion, the self-educated 16th president was tasked with navigating the nation through the darkest moment in its history. While Lincoln had plenty of concerns to keep him busy, he nonetheless took time to show his family how much they meant to him.
When interviewed by her late husband's former law partner, Mary Lincoln fondly recalled:
Mr. L was the kindest, most tender, and loving husband and father in the world. He gave us all unbounded liberty. Said to me always when I asked him for anything: "You know what you want - go and get it." He never asked me if it was necessary. He was very, very indulgent to his children - chided or praised for it he always said, "It is my pleasure that my children are free, happy, and unrestrained by parental tyranny. Love is the chain whereby to lock a child to its parent."
The father of four boys would outlive two of them. His second son Eddie passed as a toddler. Years later, he lost his third son, 12-year-old Willie, in the midst of the Civil War. When the boy succumbed to typhoid, Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln's closest confidante, recalled the President burying his head in his hands, body convulsing with tears. She wrote:
I stood at the foot of the bed, my eyes full of tears, looking at the man in silent, awe-stricken wonder. His grief unnerved him, and made him a weak, passive child. I did not dream that his rugged nature could be so moved.
The 26th president is known for many things, such as his love of the outdoors or the fact that "teddy bears" were named after this Teddy. However, one of the lesser-known but very true facts about the first Roosevelt president is that he was also the first to have a certified wild-child in the White House.
Alice Roosevelt was Teddy's first child, named after her mother - and his first wife - who passed just days after giving birth. While her father stumbled through his grief for years, Alice grew up lonely, spending much of her time with her aunt.
When Teddy married his second wife Edith and created a new family, Alice's distance from her father grew even greater, and she became more rebellious and headstrong. She embraced the "strong independent woman" movement of the time, and the media ate up her exploits. When speaking of her father, the tense relationship between the two was obvious:
My father always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding, and the baby at every christening.
While Roosevelt served as president, he and his wife spent much of their time trying to minimize Alice's antics and the media attention they attracted. In fact, Teddy is quoted as saying:
I can do one of two things. I can be President of the United States or I can control Alice Roosevelt. I cannot possibly do both.
John F. Kennedy captured the nation's heart shortly after capturing the presidency. His beautiful wife Jackie and their young children, Caroline and John (also referred to as "John-John"), endeared the Kennedys to the hearts of Americans everywhere. Being the leader of the most powerful democracy in the world, one might think Kennedy didn't have much time to spend with his family while he served as the 35th president. However, his family would say otherwise.
In an interview, Jackie reminisced on the many morning wake-ups in the White House that involved her husband and children on the floor:
The television, gosh sometimes it was so loud... there'd be cartoons, and there was this awful exercise man, Jack [LaLanne]... He'd have them tumbling around. He loved those children tumbling around him.
But it wasn't just JFK's own children who loved to be around him. According to Jackie, he'd often interrupt the White House school his children attended. "He'd always come out in the garden during their recess in the morning and clap his hands, and all the little things from school would come running."
And when Jackie delayed her own move into the White House, along with the children, due to the painting of their rooms, JFK encouraged her to bring them anyway:
He couldn't wait to get the children back. And all that end [of the White House] smelled so of paint, but he'd keep saying "You've got to bring them back soon." He really missed them.
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Given the nickname "Silent Cal," the 30th President of the United States was a man of few words. And while his presidency was revered for its integrity and hands-off approach, his approach to fatherhood was similarly appreciated. In 1924, he encouraged all Americans to celebrate Father's Day (which didn't become a holiday until 1972) in order to "[E]stablish more intimate relations between fathers and their children and to impress upon fathers the measure of their obligations."
President Coolidge had two sons, John and Calvin Jr., both of whom were teenagers during his presidency. Later in the same year he extolled the connection between fathers and their children, the president suffered the loss of his younger son. After the family had posed for pictures around the grounds of the White House on a summer day, John and Calvin Jr. took up a competitive game of tennis. The younger brother was playing in shoes without socks and developed a blister on his toe. The blister later became infected, and Calvin Jr. passed at the age of 16. When reflecting on the loss of his son, the president wrote:
When he went, the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him.
Coolidge's older son John later recalled,
Though father was tenderhearted, he rarely showed his feelings. But when they were taking my brother’s casket from the White House after the services, my father broke down and wept momentarily. Calvin was my father’s favorite. It hurt him terribly. It hurt us all.
The younger George Bush and father of fraternal twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, tried to let them live as normally as possible when he was in the spotlight. However, this "normal life" became more difficult when he became the 43rd president in 2000, when his daughters were just 19 years old.
Both girls were caught drinking underage early in his presidency. After the media had a field day, Jenna later reflected on how her father reacted:
He apologized to me because what we wanted more than anything was to just be normal college kids. So he always would say, "No, you can be normal." He also wanted to give us what we wanted, some space and to grow, and also I think he wanted to give us the chance to make mistakes, not so publicly. He said, "I'm sorry. I promised you you could be normal, and this isn't normal."
Jenna also stated that even while serving as president,
[H]is whole thing was like, "Y'all can be normal college kids. You go be you," and then he realized pretty soon after that that we really couldn't be normal college kids. His reactions were always filled with grace and love. He wasn't the type to shame us for acting silly.
One of the nation's Founding Fathers, John Adams was not exactly known for being a doting father to his four children: John Quincy, Thomas, Charles, and Abigail ("Nabby"). Raising the family in Braintree, MA, both he and his wife Abigail sought to push their sons toward greatness. Just a few years before he himself became president of the young nation, Adams admonished John Quincy:
You come into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre. And if you do not rise to the head not only of your own profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own laziness, slovenliness and obstinacy.
Similarly, Abigail Adams implored John Quincy to appreciate the gift of education, and to make the most of it. When considering all the opportunities he had been afforded, she said, "How unpardonable would it have been in you, to have been a Blockhead." Aw, thanks mom.
In response to the high expectations, John Quincy clearly cared much about his parents' opinion of him. When justifying one of his decisions to turn town the offer of a diplomatic position, the younger Adams stated in a letter:
...in the whole course of my life I scarcely ever did a responsible act, of which I was proud or ashamed, without feeling my soul soothed or galled with the reflection of how it would affect the sensibility of my Parents...