By Jim O’Neal
After favored son John Quincy Adams became president of the United States, there was an unspoken feeling that – like the sons of kings and monarchs – he might be destined for greatness. However, it would be a surprising 176 years before another president’s son, George W. Bush, would be sworn in as president.
The stories of presidential sons between these two bookends make up a complex and slightly dark addendum to the First Families of the United States. Some historians have a theory that the closer the male child is to his father, the more likely he is to die or self-destruct. Whether it is fact or coincidence is open for debate.
- George Washington had no biological children, but was stepfather to a notorious young man, John Parke Curtis, who ruined his estate and died prematurely at age 26.
- Thomas Jefferson’s only son died shortly after birth (unnamed).
- James Madison’s stepson was an alcoholic, gambler and womanizer. After Madison died, he cheated his own mother (Dolley), and Congress had to intervene to help the former First Lady.
- James Monroe’s only son died in infancy.
- Andrew Jackson Jr. was an adopted son who mismanaged the Hermitage. He died of tetanus after shooting himself in a hunting accident.
- Martin Van Buren Jr. died from tuberculosis in a Parisian apartment with his father sitting helpless by his bedside.
- James Polk’s nephew and ward – Marshall Polk – was expelled from both Georgetown and West Point, ending his life in prison.
- Calvin Coolidge Jr. died of blood poisoning from an infected blister after playing tennis.
A number managed to live longer lives, yet seemed to be cursed with a plethora of issues:
- John Tyler Jr. was an alcoholic.
- Ulysses S. Grant Jr. got caught up in an investment fraud scheme.
- Chester A. Arthur Jr. was a playboy with an unaccountably suspicious source of “easy money” and investigative reporters hounded him and only stopped when his father’s term of office ended.
Franklin Roosevelt Jr. was the first of two sons named after their father and died suddenly after birth. The second namesake, married five times, was banned from the prestigious New York Social Register. Then, the powerful Tammany Hall machine became irked and ended his political career, as well.
Remarkably, when this terrible scourge progressed, fate would sometimes (greedily) step in and run the table. This happened to Franklin Pierce, who lost all three eldest sons in a row. It also happened to Andrew Johnson when first-born Charles Johnson died in a horse accident, Richard Johnson likely committed suicide at age 35, and younger brother Andrew Johnson Jr. died at a youthful 26.
Intuition says this phenomenon is more than random chance or a curse. Perhaps it is the pressure of being the first born, or something that drives the children of powerful figures to escape through substance abuse or risky behavior. Even President George W. Bush admitted to fighting alcoholism for years.
Mine is not to psychoanalyze, but simply to point out a series of eerie similar situations for your interest and speculation.
Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].