Clinton’s Daughter Has Turned Out Remarkably Well Compared to Her Predecessors
With Hillary Clinton the likely Democratic nominee, Chelsea Clinton could pull off a first in American history by becoming a First Child in two different administrations. And if her mother were to win in both 2016 and 2020, Chelsea would also become the First Child with the longest tenure, surpassing the 12-year mark reached by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s five children.
She could also well make a mark on history. Among the roughly 200 children reared by America’s presidents, the 36-year-old mother of two, who has graduate degrees from both Columbia and Oxford and currently serves as the vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, is quietly emerging as a candidate for membership in the relatively small club of highly accomplished offspring.
Particularly in the early years of the republic, First Children often floundered despite all their advantages. Many suffered from depression or other health crises and never found their way—leading historian Michael Beschloss to coin the expression “curse of the famous scion.”
Take John Adams’s third child, Charles, who died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 30. Or John Tyler Jr., the namesake of our tenth president, who spent decades toiling away as a low-level federal bureaucrat. When he died at the age of 76, one reporter observed, “It were better to be buried alive than to live a life so useless.”
Still, a few have made significant contributions to American life, albeit in relative anonymity when compared to their fathers.
Both the downside and the upside of being a First Child can be found in the family of John Adams, America’s second president. While his son Charles died young of cirrhosis, another son—John Quincy Adams—served as the country’s sixth president from 1825 to 1829, the only First Child to hold the office until George W. Bush.
Like his father, John Quincy Adams was a tough disciplinarian as both a leader and a parent. When he learned that his middle son John Adams II ranked 45 out of 85 in his class at Harvard, he told him not to return to Washington during Christmas vacation, noting, “I could feel nothing but sorrow and shame in your presence.”
John II and John Quincy’s oldest son, George Washington Adams, both crashed and burned—like their uncle Charles, the two suffered from alcoholism and were dead by the age of 31. But John Quincy’s third son, Charles Francis Adams, evolved into a political heavyweight who was long considered presidential timber.
In the summer of 1848, after serving a few terms in the Massachusetts state legislature, the 41-year-old Charles Francis was nominated by the newly formed Free Soil party to run for vice president on a ticket headed by former president, Martin van Buren. A little more than a decade later, Charles Francis—a fervent abolitionist—was a second-term member of the House of Representatives when President Lincoln appointed him Ambassador to Great Britain, a position in which he played a key role in convincing the British not to side with the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Upon his return to America, Charles Francis was offered the presidency of Harvard but declined. Then, in 1872, while serving as President Grant’s special envoy to Geneva, he came within 49 votes of being nominated for president by the Liberal Republican Party. An acclaimed historian who edited numerous volumes of family papers, Charles Francis also established the first presidential library, the Stone Library in Quincy.
Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert also made a lasting contribution to American life.
Like many of the ambitious men who went on to become president, Lincoln was an absentee dad, and during Lincoln’s presidency, Robert, who was then of college age, reported that he “scarcely even had 10 minutes quiet talk with him…on account of his constant devotion to business.”
Later, however, Robert received more attention from his father. After completing Harvard in 1864, Robert signed up to join the Union forces. He did not see any military action, as his father appointed him as an assistant adjutant general of the army, but he was at Grant’s side when Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
After his father’s death, Robert passed the bar in Illinois, where he built a thriving law practice. Later, he served as Secretary of War in both the Garfield and Arthur administrations. But while Republican Party leaders repeatedly urged him to run for president, he never did. Instead, in 1897 he became president of the Pullman Car Company—a position he held for 14 years, during which he became fabulously wealthy.
In contrast to most other presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes was a nurturing dad who encouraged his five children to find their own path in life. Upon moving into the White House in 1877, Hayes hired his second son, Webb, then just 20, as his private secretary. Webb used his four years in his father’s administration to launch an impressive career in both business and the military. Just six years after leaving Washington, Webb co-founded the National Carbon Company, which later evolved into the multinational colossus Union Carbide, and as its long-serving vice president he amassed a small fortune.
Webb also became the only American officer to do military service in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and China. After fighting in both France and Africa during World War I, Webb Hayes built the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio.
Like Lincoln, William Howard Taft was an absentee dad to his three children. When Taft served as Governor of the Philippines, he rarely saw his eldest son Robert because he traveled so much; when Robert was just 14, Taft shipped the adolescent back to America so that he could begin boarding school. But Robert rose to the situation: He finished first in his class at both Yale College and Harvard Law School and won a seat as an Ohio Senator in 1938.
Known as “Mr. Republican,” the influential leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party put his stamp on the Taft-Hartley Act passed in 1947, which put restrictions on the ability of unions to strike. Robert Taft sought the Republican nomination for president in 1940, 1948, and 1952, and came closest in his third try when he lost the nod in a contested convention to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In early 1953, following Eisenhower’s victory over Democrat Adlai Stevenson, Taft became the Senator Majority Leader, only to die a few months later.
This election pits Chelsea Clinton against another successful and articulate daughter, Ivanka Trump. But like Chelsea, Donald Trump’s second child has also distinguished herself primarily through her work for her famous father. If either Chelsea Clinton or Ivanka Trump is to join the ranks of the truly illustrious First Children, she will need to establish her own identity. As these examples attest, more than a few First Children have made a positive mark on America, even if their fame is still dimmed by the shadow of a parent.
Joshua Kendall is the author of First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama (Grand Central Publishing, 2016).