When First Fathers Lose A Child: How Grief Has Affected Presidents

first fathers

Three of New England’s First Fathers lost children to death after they were elected President of the United States. Franklin Pierce and Calvin Coolidge were so grief-stricken they could barely cope with their duties. First Father John F. Kennedy reacted differently to the death of his infant son.

In his new book, First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama, author Joshua Kendall presents psychological profiles of every president as a parent.

“Psychologists say grief can either break a parent or reshape a parent,” Kendall said in a recent interview with the New England Historical Society. In the case of Pierce and Coolidge, it broke them.

Psychologists also have the concept of post-traumatic growth. “Sometimes it energizes a person in a strange way,” Kendall said.  That seems to have been the case with Kennedy.

Franklin Pierce

franklin pierce featureFranklin Pierce was considered a dynamo when he was elected president in 1852. He was a popular speaker elected with more than half the vote, something no Democrat would do until 1932.

Kendall argues Pierce suffered chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in January 1853. He took the train from Andover, N.H., with his wife and his third and only surviving son, Benny. The train crashed, and wood fell on the 11-year-old’s head. Pierce picked him up, not realizing he was dead until he took off his cap. The boy’s head was like jelly.

Pierce never got over it.

A week after his son died, Pierce wrote former Sen. Jefferson Davis — his future Secretary of War — “How shall I be able to summon my manhood to gather up my energies for the duties before me, it is hard for me to see,” he wrote.

“It fried his brain,” Kendall said. “His wife goes psycho, writes letters to dead children.”

Kendall said Pierce’s close friend Nathaniel Hawthorne didn’t mind that he was never invited to the White House because his wife was so impossible.

Pierce became fanatically obsessed with the health of children.

“OK, Pierce was a lousy president, but we have to give him some slack,” Kendall said.

Calvin Coolidge

calvin coolidge featureCalvin Coolidge was full of energy until his son Calvin, Jr., died of a staph infection on July 7, 1924, after playing tennis without his socks.

“Just like with Pierce, the before and after is very striking,” Kendall said. “His depression may have caused the Great Depression. He was asleep at the switch.”

He was sleeping 11 hours a day. He was cold and distant to his remaining son John, treating him harshly. While still in the White House he said he always saw his boy playing tennis on the court out there.

The death of his son probably caused Coolidge to decline running for re-election, a race he almost surely would have won. When he died, Dorothy Parker said, “How can you tell?”

Coolidge’s wife Grace was able to grow past her trauma and move beyond her son’s death. “Grace mourns and integrates the experience, and was very present with her remaining child,” Kendall said.

First Father JFK

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie had a rocky marriage because of all his womanizing, Kendall said. As a parent, he was disconnected from his two young children.

Then Jackie gave birth to a son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, who died two days later on Aug. 9, 1963.

“Most JFK experts believe this shared tragedy was bringing them together,” Kendall said. “It almost had a therapeutic effect on their marriage.

Kennedy was assassinated less than three months later.

Playful Pal

Joshua Kendall

Joshua Kendall

The death of a child shaped still another president.

George W. Bush was what Kendall calls a ‘playful pal’ to his twin daughters. He was shaped by the death of his sister, Robin. “Barbara Bush is totally fried by the  loss,” Kendall said. “George W. then become very playful in order to cheer his mother up.”

Joshua Kendall will talk about his book First Dads in both Connecticut and Massachusetts. On June 14, he’ll be at the New Haven Museum at 5:30 p.m. For more information click here. On June 16 at the Boston Athenaeum from Noon to 1 pm. For more information click here.

We’ll have another post about New England’s First Father’s on Father’s Day. Look for it!

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