I've been watching the new TV show "1600 Penn" the past few weeks. The first thing I should report is that it's not great. It's okay. There are moments when I do laugh out loud. There just aren't very many of them.
I mention "1600 Penn" because of its subject matter. It's about the first family. A fictitious president, played by Bill Pullman, is married to his second wife and is raising four children in the White House. One child is a full-grown son, and he's the family black sheep. The family star is the eldest daughter, but she's pregnant and unwed. Then there are two smaller children.
I remember being a kid and thinking it would be great fun to live in the White House. I don't want to be president, and I didn't want to be president then. I just thought life would be great if your dad or grandpa happened to be president. I thought this before I started reading about the lives of the presidential children on the Internet.
Before my reading started, I probably would have assumed that most presidential families were pretty normal. I figured that the guy elected to the most powerful office in the nation would probably have a strong, nuclear family. One husband, one wife, and perfect children. And that hasn't usually been the case. A nuclear family is supposed to be the norm. But in the White House, it hasn't been.
George Washington, for instance, despite his title as father of our country, never fathered a child. But he raised four children. Two of them, Jacky and Patsy Custis, were the son and daughter of Martha Washington from a previous marriage. The other two, Nelly and Wash, were the daughter and son of Jacky, who only lived to be 30. Patsy, by the way, only lived to be 17. This is a recurring theme among presidents. A lot of their children died young. And not just those who served before the discovery of penicillin. Twentieth-century presidents had the same problem. Of John F. Kennedy's four children, only two lived to their first birthdays, and only one lived to her 40th.
John Adams had six children. One, Elizabeth, was stillborn. Another, Susanna, died at the age of two. And son Charles died at 30.
Thomas Jefferson, according to modern historians, was the father of 14. Six of those were with his wife, Martha Jefferson. Peter, Lucy and Lucy II each died in infancy. And Mary died at 25. Jefferson's other eight children were with Sally Hemings, one of Jefferson's slaves. And two of them died during childhood.
James Madison never fathered a child, but he raised John and William Todd, who were Dolley Madison's sons from a previous marriage.
James Monroe had three children. One died at the age of two.
John Quincy Adams had five children. His daughter, Louisa, died at the age of one.
Andrew Jackson was another president who didn't father any children. However, he raised ten. Andrew Jackson, Jr. was actually the son of Rachel Jackson by her first husband, Severn Donelson, but Andrew, Jr. was adopted at birth by Andrew Jackson. Rachel Jackson, interestingly, married Andrew Jackson before legally obtaining a divorce from Donelson. Jackson's second child was an adopted Creek Indian named Lyncoya. Lyncoya lived to be 17 and died of tuberculosis. The Jacksons also raised John, Andrew and Daniel Donelson. All three were Rachel's nephews. They raised Andrew Hutchings, who was Rachel's grandnephew, and Caroline, Eliza, Edward and Anthony Butler, whose parents were deceased and had been Jackson family friends.
Martin Van Buren had five boys and a daughter, but the daughter was stillborn.
William Henry Harrison had eleven children. One, James, died at the age of five. Two, Lucy and Carter, died in their twenties. Four others, John, William, Benjamin and Mary, all died in their thirties. And his youngest daughter, Dilsia, was born to one of his slaves. One of John's sons, named Benjamin, eventually also became president.
John Tyler was married twice and had 16 children. Just one, Anne, died before she was a year old. Three more died in their twenties and two in their thirties, but four of Tyler's children lived past the age of 80, which was unusual for the time. Besides his eight children with wife Letitia and seven with wife Julia, he also was the father of John Dunjee, whose mother was a slave.
James K. Polk had no children, but he raised his brother's son, Marshall.
Zachary Taylor had six children. One died of malaria at age four. Another died of malaria at age 21.
The story continues. In addition to the aforementioned, other presidents who lost children young include James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Cleveland and Warren G. Harding each fathered an illegitimate child. Franklin Pierce's youngest son was hit by a train at 12 in front of his parents. One of Andrew Johnson's sons killed himself at 35. Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson both got married while they were already president. And Reagan was the first, and so far only, president who has been divorced.
Okay. Let's fast-forward now to the current century, the 21st. For the first time in American history, we've had three consecutive presidents with no previous marriages, no adopted children, no legal guardianships, and no children lost to childhood maladies.
Barack Obama has a nuclear family. He's only been married once. His wife was not previously married to someone else. They have two daughters, both of whom are biologically theirs. So far, neither daughter has had bad health problems.
George W. Bush also had a nuclear family. No previous marriages. No previous marriages for Laura Bush. Twin daughters, both natural children and both now in their thirties.
And Bill Clinton had a nuclear family. One legal wife, one natural daughter, and no divorces.
Not yet, anyway.