America’s Floundering Fathers

They wanted to start a revolution, not win Parent of the Year.

It’s hard work, this whole making-a-country thing: winning a revolution, establishing a government, writing a constitution. For some of America’s founding fathers, that meant family didn’t always come first. For others, it meant having a legacy to uphold—raising a new generation of American presidents to follow in their footsteps. And for one founding father, it meant no children at all.

James Madison

At 35, Madison’s stepson John Payne Todd was an alcoholic and a wastrel; frequently imprisoned for his debts and other indiscretions, he often expected his parents to pick up the bill. Todd once borrowed $300 from the postmaster of Philadelphia to stay out of debtors’ prison. Madison had to pay the postmaster back in installments, and would eventually have to mortgage his Montpelier, Virginia, estate. Todd was such a severe drain on the family’s expenses that after the death of the former president, Congress appropriated $30,000 to buy Madison’s papers in order to provide a living for Todd’s mother, Dolley Madison.

John Adams

Adams expected a great deal from his son John Quincy, not least that he should follow his father to become president of the United States. “You come into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre,” he wrote to the 26-year-old in 1794. “And if you do not rise to the head not only of your profession but of your country, it will be owing to your own laziness, slovenliness, and obstinacy.” Quincy was inaugurated as president on March 4, 1825, at the age of 57; his father would die a year later, on July 4.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson fathered six children with his wife, Martha: Patsy Jefferson, Jane Randolph Jefferson, Polly Jefferson, Lucy Elizabeth, a second Lucy Elizabeth, and an unnamed son. Only Patsy lived past the age of 25. After Martha’s death, Jefferson fathered six more children with Martha’s half sister Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman he legally owned. Four of those children—Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston—reached adulthood; Beverly and Harriet escaped Monticello in the 1820s and fled to Washington, D.C., and Madison and Eston were freed in Jefferson’s will. Madison and his wife lived as black and spent a quiet life in Ohio, while Eston and his wife settled in Wisconsin and passed as white.

Benjamin Harrison V

Two descendants of founding father and plantation owner Benjamin Harrison V, who was born in 1726 and died in 1791, would become US presidents: his son William Henry Harrison, who died of either pneumonia or septic shock after 32 days in office; and his great-grandson Benjamin Harrison, who didn’t like to shake hands and was known as the “human iceberg.”

Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton’s oldest daughter, Angelica, was fiercely devoted to her brother Philip. She was devastated when—in a foreshadowing of her father’s own fate—he died in a duel in 1801 after challenging a lawyer who had insulted his father. In an attempt to cheer his daughter, Hamilton asked a friend to send her watermelons and, thinking of her love of birds, “three or four parakeets.” The Hamiltons had eight children, all of whom—save Philip—lived to adulthood.

Benjamin Franklin

In his early 20s, Franklin fathered an illegitimate child, William, whom he recognized as his son. (The identity of William’s mother is unknown.) The two became close, almost like brothers, and William would often help his father with his experiments, including when he conducted electricity with a kite. In August 1775, Franklin tried to convince William to take a position in the Revolutionary Army, but William, then royal governor of New Jersey, remained loyal to the Crown. William was jailed, and he eventually escaped to Britain to live in exile. He inherited almost nothing from his famous father, who noted in his will that William, in supporting the king, sought to deprive Benjamin of his own estates and property.

George Washington

Though he was a father figure to the children and grandchildren of his wife, Martha, from her first marriage, George Washington never had any children of his own. Scientists believe a bout with tuberculosis caused a blockage in his testicles that prevented him from siring a child.

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