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How Tragedy Shaped The Lives And Careers Of 10 US Presidents

Updated September 27, 2021 6.3k views10 items

Many American presidents have experienced tragic losses that significantly influenced their personal and professional lives. Exploring how these real-life tragedies shaped their lives and careers can humanize some of the most influential people in US history.

As presidents from history grieved spouses, children, siblings, and parents, their decisions and actions necessarily reflected those losses, and in turn, shaped history as a whole. From Abraham Lincoln's reaction to his son's passing to the pain Teddy Roosevelt felt after losing his wife and mother, tragedy is a fundamental part of these US presidents' legacies. 

  • Photo: John Chester Buttre / Library of Congress / No known restrictions

    Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, had four sons: Robert, Edward (Eddie), William (Willie), and Thomas (Tad).

    Eddie passed at age 3 in 1850. After Willie and Tad both contracted measles in 1861, they recovered, but Willie took ill again the following year. He died of typhoid fever on February 20, 1862. Tad was sick as well, but got better.

    Willie was described by one of Mary Lincoln's enslaved confidants, Elizabeth Keckley, as "his mother's favorite child." And Abraham Lincoln, upon seeing his son's body, was bereft:

    My poor boy, he was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so.

    In the following months and years, Lincoln reportedly visited his son's final resting place often and wept. He had already experienced "melancholy" at various points in his life, notably in 1835 and again in 1840 and 1841. By the time he became president of the United States, Lincoln was taking mercury-based "blue-mass" pills for his depressive episodes, but the pills "made him cross" to such a level that he eventually stopped taking them. 

    After Willie was gone, Lincoln was said to have changed, although "he gave no outward sign of his trouble, but kept about this work the same as ever." If anything, Lincoln became more humble and introspective, noting that the loss of Willie "showed me my weakness as I had never felt it before."

    He reportedly took comfort in reading, exploring poetry and humorous stories to amuse himself while simultaneously drawing upon their language and lessons to maneuver through the complex political negotiations that faced him daily. 

    • Birthplace: Hodgenville, KT, USA
    • Presidency: 16th
    • V.P.: Andrew Johnson, Hannibal Hamlin
    • Profession: Statesman, Politician, Lawyer
  • Photo: Richard Sears / John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    As the second-oldest son in the Kennedy family, John F. Kennedy was aware that the political aspirations of his father, Joe Sr., rested heavily on his older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. When Joe Jr. passed in WWII, the political torch passed to John.

    Joe Jr. was unabashedly touted by his father as a child destined to be "the future president of the nation." A skilled athlete, charismatic, and intelligent, he was educated at Harvard and the London School of Economics.

    Joe Jr. joined the US Navy in 1941, and in 1943 was sent to England, where he flew with the British Naval Command and volunteered to take part in Operation Aphrodite. During a mission on August 12, 1944, the explosives aboard a plane flown by Joe Jr. detonated early, and the eldest Kennedy son was gone. 

    Joe Sr. then shifted his focus to John. Although John was sickly - described by the family patriarch as "a very frail boy" with "various troubles" - and less willing to conform to his father's will, he had been educated in much the same way as his older brother and was politically astute.

    As more of a passive observer, however, John reportedly told one of his friends, "Now the burden falls on me." Later, in an interview, he recalled what it was like to be shifted into his father's spotlight:

    It was like being drafted. My father wanted his oldest son in politics. "Wanted" isn't the right word. He demanded it. You know my father.

    By 1947, John Kennedy was a member of the US Congress, the first office he held on his path to becoming president of the United States in 1960.

    • Birthplace: Brookline, MA, USA
    • Presidency: 35th
    • V.P.: Lyndon B. Johnson
    • Profession: Politician, Military Officer, Author
  • Calvin Coolidge had two sons, both of whom spent breaks from boarding school at the White House after he became president in 1923. The oldest son, John, was born in 1906, while Calvin Jr. was born two years later. Only one would survive Coolidge's presidency. 

    During the summer of 1924, John and Calvin Jr. were playing tennis on the courts at the White House. Reportedly, neither boy was wearing socks and Calvin Jr. got a blood blister on one of his toes. A few days later, Calvin Jr. felt ill and was diagnosed with blood poisoning.

    Calvin Jr. had a staphylococcus infection that, at the time, was usually treated with mercury. As he battled sepsis for a week, his father was distant and uninterested in daily matters. Calvin Sr. knew his son was getting "all that medical science" could offer and hoped "he may be better in a few days," but Calvin Jr. passed at Walter Reed Army General Hospital on July 7, 1924

    Coolidge and his wife, Grace, were at Calvin Jr.'s bedside when he passed, and according to observers, the president's face resembled "the bleak desolation of cold November rain beating on gray Vermont granite." Coolidge often wept, looked out his window where Calvin Jr. once played tennis, and thought about how, if he hadn't been president, the whole loss would never have happened

    In his autobiography, Coolidge later wrote,

    We do not know what would have happened to him under other circumstances, but if I had not been President, he would not have raised a blister on his toe, which resulted in blood poisoning, playing lawn tennis on the South Grounds.

    Some scholars note a shift in Coolidge's demeanor after the loss of his son. The president's behavior during his 1924 election campaign has been described as "subdued," and "Silent Cal" seemed even quieter. Coolidge himself once wrote, "[W]hen [Calvin Jr.] went, the power and glory of the presidency went with him."

    • Birthplace: Plymouth Notch, VT, USA
    • Presidency: 30th
    • V.P.: Charles G. Dawes
    • Profession: Politician, Lawyer
  • Photo: Theodore Roosevelt / Library of Congress / Public domain

    Teddy Roosevelt Nearly Gave Up Politics After His Wife And Mother Perished

    Teddy Roosevelt was already a politician by 1884 when both his wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, and mother, Martha "Mittie" Roosevelt, passed on February 14. Teddy and Alice had married nearly four years earlier, shortly before the former became a member of the New York State Assembly.

    Teddy spent much of his time in Albany (or on some sort of adventure), while Alice stayed in New York City. His affection for his wife was clear from diary entries about how much he loved, trusted, and wanted to worship her. Despite the distance, their marriage was strong and Alice became pregnant.

    Alice gave birth to their first child, also named Alice Lee, on February 13, but took ill and perished the following day. Just hours earlier, Teddy lost his mother when she succumbed to typhoid fever. 

    Teddy penned in his diary, "For joy or for sorrow my life has now been lived out." In remembrance of both Alice and Mittie, he wrote:

    Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden; loving, tender, and happy as a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be but just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her - then by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever.

    Teddy retreated from politics, leaving his infant daughter with his wife's sister. For two years, Teddy ranched and worked as a sheriff in the Dakota territories. He returned to New York in 1886 and reentered politics. He also reunited with his daughter and remarried that same year.

    • Birthplace: New York City, NY, USA
    • Presidency: 26th
    • V.P.: Charles W. Fairbanks
    • Profession: Author, Explorer, Police Commissioner, Politician