What Tragic Life Experience Have Many U.S. Presidents Shared?
Despite the incredible burden of responsibility that comes with serving as President of the United States, the most challenging moments of a presidency often spring from personal tragedy, rather than political or professional setbacks.
The loss of a child is arguably the worst kind of personal tragedy. Such a bereavement has been experienced by a surprising number of U.S. presidents, even into the 20th century and beyond. John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy were all serving in the White House when they suffered the death of a child. In fact, according to the non-profit bereavement organization Evermore, more than half of all U.S. presidents lost at least one child - some, like Thomas Jefferson and William Henry Harrison, lost many more than that, prior to the development of modern medicine that improved childhood survival rates.
In the 20th century alone, Theodore Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush lost children, with Coolidge and Kennedy losing sons during their presidencies. The current U.S. President, Joe Biden, is certainly no stranger to this type of devastating loss. In 1972, just weeks after his election to the U.S. Senate, Biden's first wife, Neilia, was killed in a car accident along with their one-year-old daughter, Naomi. His sons, Beau and Hunter, survived the crash with serious injuries. Beau died from brain cancer at age 46 in 2015, an event that halted Joe Biden's 2016 presidential run.
An incomplete history of presidential loss:
- John Adams' troubled 30-year-old son, Charles Adams, died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1800, towards the end of his father's only presidential term.
- Two months before his inauguration, President-elect Franklin Pierce, who had already lost two children, witnessed the death of his only surviving son, 11-year-old Benny, in a train accident. The event sent his wife, Jane, into a period of deep mourning, with both parents convinced that the boy's death was retribution for Pierce's political ambitions.
- Abraham and Mary Lincoln lost three of their four sons. Willie, Abraham Lincoln's favorite child, died of typhoid fever in 1862, while his father was in the White House.
- Calvin Coolidge's presidency was drastically altered by the sudden and completely unexpected passing of his 16-year-old son Calvin Jr., who died in 1924 as a result of an infected blister, acquired while playing tennis on the White House courts.
- In August 1963, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy gave birth prematurely to Patrick Kennedy, who lived for just two days. His father, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated three months later in the most notable of the many tragedies to befall the extended Kennedy family.
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