First Mothers: The Relationship Between American Presidents and Their Mothers

Mary Ball Washington, Mother of George Washington

Much has been written about the First Ladies of the United States and Mary Lincoln was the first to coin that phrase. However, little has been written about the First Mothers — those great women that shaped the lives of many American presidents.

the forty-four men that have served as president, Grover Cleveland had two nonconsecutive terms, there are many firsts and similarities. Three out of the first five presidents died on the Fourth of July. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the fiftieth anniversary in 1826 and James Monroe on Independence Day five years later. John F. Kennedy was the first and only president to have his assassination viewed by the public on television.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president, whose mother was able to vote for him for president, James Polk, was the first President to have his photograph taken and Barrack Obama was the first non-white person to hold that office (although there has been some debate regarding the ancestry of Warren G. Harding).

The Matriarchs

is often said that behind (beside) every great man is a great woman and the presidency of the United States has proven this aphorism. Long before the president set eyes on his future bride and companion in the White House, he gazed into the eyes of his mother and felt her smooth hands across his face. To the First Mother, the president was not the father of the nation, but instead, her little boy now grown. She had the unique pleasure of planting the seed and seeing it grow into the tree that she had hoped it would be. As William Rose Wallace aptly stated: The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.

the history of the presidency, there have been three presidents whose paternal father died before they were born: Andrew Jackson, Rutherford B. Hayes, and William Jefferson Clinton. Andrew Jackson’s mother, Elizabeth, was a nurse during the Revolutionary War who contracted cholera from a patient and died. Many psychologists believe that Andrew Jackson spent his whole life seeking to become one of those heroes from which his mother had sacrificed her life. Other presidents were molded likewise. For example, Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks, died when he was nine years old, and her death deeply affected him for the rest of his life.

FDR and his mother Sara

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s mother, Sara, constantly looked over his shoulder before and during his presidency and wrote a bestselling book entitled: My Boy Franklin. In many ways, Sara Delano could be controlling, using the purse strings of the Roosevelts to exercise control over Franklin, Eleanor and the children. In today’s terms, she would be called a Helicopter Mom, who protected her only child like a lioness protecting her cub. She died on September 7, 1941, three months before the December 7, attack on Pearl Harbor. Her last request was to restore the room in which he was born to the way it was on the day of his birth. Perhaps as a symbol of her enduring love for him. This he faithfully executed.

There are many interesting things about American presidents that are unknown to the general public. For instance, in researching the presidents, I found that the names of the presidents generally fall into two major categories: those that have no middle name, e.g., George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln and those that have their mother’s maiden name as their middle name, e.g., Franklin Delano Roosevelt. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Richard Milhous Nixon.

Harry S Truman could also be considered in that first category as the S does not stand for any particular name, thus a period behind the S is not warranted. Woodrow Wilson also follows this pattern as his full name is Thomas Woodrow Wilson. Millard Fillmore, however, took his mother’s maiden name as his first name and John Knox Tyler was the first president to have his mother’s maiden name as his middle name.

The trend continues with the sons of presidents that became president. John Quincy Adams was the first son of a president and the first one to have a middle name. He does not have his mother’s maiden name, but instead, his grandmother’s maiden name: Quincy (mother’s side). The same is true of the other president who was the son of a president, George Walker Bush, whose grandmother’s maiden name was Walker (father’s side). His father’s name was George Herbert Walker Bush, and he passed his mother’s maiden name, Walker, to his son.

George and Barbara Bush with baby George W. Bush (1947)

Although there are some exceptions to this rule, e.g., Garfield and Eisenhower both had siblings with their mother’s maiden name, the fact remains that many presidents do. Below is a list of presidents that have their mother’s maiden name:

6. John Quincy Adams 1825–1829 (grandson of William and Elizabeth (Quincy) Smith- grandmother on mother’s side)

11. James Knox Polk 1845–1849 (son of Samuel and Jane (Knox) Polk)

13. Millard Fillmore1850–1853 (son of Nathaniel and Phoebe (Millard) Fillmore)

18. Ulysses Simpson Grant1869–1877(son of Jesse and Hannah (Simpson) Grant)

19. Rutherford Birchard Hayes1877–1881 (son of Rutherford and Sophia (Birchard) Hayes)

28. Thomas Woodrow Wilson1913–1921(son of Joseph and Janet (Woodrow) Wilson

32. Franklin Delano Roosevelt1933–1945(son of James and Sarah (Delano) Roosevelt

35. John Fitzgerald Kennedy1961–1963(son of Joseph and Rose (Fitzgerald) Kennedy

36. Lyndon Baines Johnson 1963–1969 (son of Sam and Rebekah (Baines) Johnson)

37. Richard Milhous Nixon1969–1974 (son of Francis and Hannah (Milhous) Nixon)

40. Ronald Wilson Reagan 1981–1989 (son of John Nelle Clyde (Wilson) Regan)

41. George Herbert Walker Bush 1989–1993 (son of Prescott and Dorothy (Walker) Bush)

43. George Walker Bush 2001–2009 (grandson of Prescott and Dorothy (Walker) Bush grandmother on father’s side)

ne can speculate if such an occurrence is coincidence or providence? At first, I attributed the maiden name trend to the family or conventional tradition of keeping the family name alive. However, after close examination, I found that it was more to it than meets the eye. Although serendipity may play a role, it seemed that the mother was passing to the son more than just a name, but a deep and perhaps subliminal affection. In many cases, the child was the indisputable favorite of the mother

LBJ as a child

For instance, in the case of Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), his political career was molded by the hands of his mother, Rebekah Baines Johnson. From his early years, she set a high bar for her beloved son; often reminding him of the Baines family tradition of excellence. She not only gave him her maiden name, but her heart. Like many mothers, she lived vicariously through her darling son. Throughout his political career, in the House and the Senate, he often consulted her as if she held a piece of his soul or the ores to the ship that guided him. She died in 1958 before he became president, yet the momentum and the confidence that she imbued in him enabled him to reach the highest political position of president of the United States. He once wrote:

“I am so grateful for having you as my mother — a woman of such fine spirit and unlimited devotion. You have been my inspiration, always, and whatever I become, the credit for all that is good will be yours.”

Kennedy and Nixon

erhaps the story of presidential mothers is best exemplified by the rivalry between Kennedy and Nixon. It is well known that Joseph (Joe) Patrick Kennedy Jr., the eldest son and namesake of the father Joseph, was the one selected to be president of the United States. However, it was the second child, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) the bearer of his mother’s maiden name, Fitzgerald, who became president of the United States. It was John, or Jack as he was called, that emerged as the World War II hero.

Moreover, it is believed that his older brother Joe died while taking a dangerous assignment trying to outdo his brother’s war accomplishments and fame. Although Joseph Kennedy would prepare all of his sons to be president: no other Kennedy male would become President of the United States. Not Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., Robert Francis Kennedy or Edward Moore Kennedy. Well before John and the children were born, the Fitzgerald name was known around Boston. Rose Kennedy (1890–1995), the matriarch of the Kennedy family, was the daughter of the mayor of Boston, John Francis Fitzgerald (1863–1950), also known as “Honey Fitz” (the name that Kennedy gave to the Presidential Yacht).

JFK with his mother Rose

Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald would have been a catch for any man. Like most elite women of her day, she was raised to be the companion of a great man and to stand behind him. She was bright and pretty, the daughter of one of the most powerful Irishmen in the United States. Joseph Patrick Kennedy was the son of Patrick Joseph “P.J.” Kennedy a Boston politician and businessman and sometimes rival of Honey Fitz. Therefore, Rose’s marriage to Joseph Kennedy was an Irish Catholic marriage akin to the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand uniting two powerful Irish-American families, and from this marriage, the Kennedy dynasty was born.

Although Joseph Kennedy was the patriarch of the family and provided financial security, he was not without his faults. He was a notorious womanizer, a failed Ambassador to England and held anti-Semitic sentiments. He also believed that Irish-Americans were oppressed people and often used his wealth, power and prestige to combat such oppression.

Joseph Kennedy, “winning wasn’t everything it was the only thing.” He imbued in all his children that second place was still a loser. However, Rose did not always stand in the shadows of her husband. She was proud of her Fitzgerald heritage and often reminded the family of it. She was very close to her father Honey Fitz, and perhaps she saw a little bit of Honey Fitz in John or perhaps just as important, molded a little of Honey Fitz into him. Rose recognized that Jack was different from the other children. He was more detached, creative, charming and imaginative. With few places for women to ascend to in those days, all she could hope is to live vicariously through her sons.

When Jack made his bid for Congress in 1946, Rose was there with him along the way. In 1952 when he defeated Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. for the Senate there was no one on the earth happier than his mother. John went on to become the first Catholic president. At his Inaugural Address, she did not comment so much on his speech, but that he stood there without his overcoat. To others in the audience, he was a man and the leader of the free world, but to his mother, he was the little boy that always came late to dinner and forgot the small things. There is a time for a mother to step up and a time to lean back and let the boy be the man. Yet her mind saw things that others were blind to; invisible things seen not by the eyes but by the heart. Such is God’s sacred gift to all mothers: to see in their children not what they are but what they can be.

ichard Milhous Nixon was not only the presidential opponent of JFK in the 1960 presidential election but in many ways the antithesis and nemesis of JFK. Both men were elected to congress in 1946; both had served in World War II. Both men carried their mother’s maiden name and both men were destined to become President of the United States. A Quaker from California, Richard Nixon was the son of Francis and Hannah (Milhous) Nixon. They were not members of the American aristocracy, but rather, blue- collar workers in search of the American Dream. Nixon is quoted as saying in reference to JFK:

“When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.”

JFK was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he was everything that Nixon was not. He was handsome, articulate, a Harvard graduate, war hero and the perfect candidate for the new age of television. If he needed money, he only needed to turn to his father who had been plotting his course long before he entered politics. His father, an ambassador to England under President Roosevelt, was more than capable of demolishing the financial and political roadblocks of his son.

Nixon, on the other hand, stood in sharp contrast to JFK. He was dull in appearance, with a blue-collar persona. Nixon and Kennedy were both nurtured by their mothers, yet the reflections of their fathers could be seen in the mirrors of each man. Although Nixon went to Duke Law School, it was Whittier College that seemed to stick to him perhaps because he wanted it to. He was smart enough to go to an Ivy League school, but not rich enough to attend. And this resentment toward Ivy League graduates in general and JFK, in particular, permeated his life.

He was not against the graduates per se, but the privilege of the rich that often came with it. Nixon had pulled himself up by his bootstraps and this became part of his political persona. He rose during the McCarthy era and the Red Scare. He gained fame in Congress as part of the Alter Hisses “witch hunt” and road this fame to become the Vice President under Eisenhower.

was during his vice presidency that the specter of dishonesty that would haunt him the rest of his political life first emerged. Forced to play second fiddle behind Ike for eight years, he almost had to resign his vice presidency in ignominy and Ike seriously considered dumping him. Many simply did not trust Nixon. Harry Truman once said of him:

“Richard Nixon is a no good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in.”

Eventually, the lies and deceit would catch up to Nixon. It was as if Nixon was borne to be the scorn of the nation, while JFK was borne to be the prince charming of a post-World War II nation. Such were the cards that fate had dealt them. Yet amid it all, Nixon was not alone. He had his mother, Hannah, at his side and it was her that helped to raise him from the abyss of disgrace. Of her five sons — Harold, Richard, Donald, Arthur and Edward, she had a special bond with Richard. Everyone else called him Dick except for his mother who called him Richard.

Nixon and his mother Hannah

There is little doubt that Nixon’s strength, his fortitude, his determination to bounce back from adversity time and time again, emanated from his mother. It was Hannah that wrote Ike a letter in defense of her son’s character and who gave him a seat and a towel in the brutal ring of politics.

After he was defeated by JFK by a narrow margin in the 1960 presidential election, he tried to run for office in his native California and was also defeated there. This seemed to be the end of Nixon’s political career. However, true to his nature imbued by his mother, he would rise again. Fortune had dealt the Kennedy family a terrible hand as both Kennedy brothers that were his closest nemesis were assassinated. The nation had changed much in less than a decade. The Vietnam War had been a disaster for Lyndon Baines Johnson and the country needed a new face and that face belonged to Richard Nixon.

Nixon was never one to shy away from confrontation. What plagued LBJ, the Vietnam War protests and the turbulence of the sixties was something that Nixon thrived on. Perhaps his only regret was that his mother did not live to see him become president. It wasn’t long after he took office that he became a target of protests and a symbol of American imperial power. Yet there was a “silent majority” that supported him. However, all of that change with the Watergate scandal. And with Watergate came, once again, the specter of distrust and the moniker “Tricky Dick”; culminating with Nixon’s infamous declaration: “I am not a crook” and his subsequent resignation to avoid impeachment.

is often said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Watergate was an event that has become the icon of abuse of power, obstruction of justice and cover-up. Nixon was ahead in every poll and eventually won by a landslide, yet he felt the need to jeopardize it all on a useless break-in. Without his mother at his side, he entered a dark room of disgrace without a window to gaze upon her. Yet, in his resignation from office, his heart went out to his mother and he found a way to touch her soul.

He said: “My mother was a saint” and in his lament, he praised her for his success while silently blaming himself for his misfortune. While she was alive, he often stumbled; but after she died, he fell. Yet, the sweet memories of her persisted. On the day of his second inauguration as vice president she wrote this note to him:

Dear Richard,

You have gone far and we are proud of you always — I know you will keep your relationship with your maker as it should be for after all that, as you must know, is the most important thing in this life.

With love, Mother

Henceforth, Nixon carried this letter in his wallet throughout his political life. And this gave him courage, solace and light against the darkness of his political despair.

he juxtaposition of the political careers of Kennedy and Nixon are just two of the many stories that could be told about the relationship between American presidents and their mothers. It is a case of two political nemeses carrying the maternal family banner embedded in their names and etched in their hearts. The reverence that most presidents held for their mothers is undeniable; often bordering on the veneration of a saint. In fact, the admiration for the mother and the subliminal or overt disdain for the father (Oedipus Complex) is quite common among presidents. Show me a great president and I will show you a great mother is the motif of the presidency. Perhaps the first President of the United States said it best:

“My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.”

rom the beginning of the presidency, it is the mother that has shaped the lives and careers of American presidents. It is the leitmotif not only of those with maiden names but of maiden voyages taken by mothers and sons across a troubled sea. God’s sacred gift to humanity was a woman and without her, there would be no humankind. So powerful was this sacred gift that a mother’s tender touch transcends the boundaries of death to touch the heart of the living and to bring solace to the troubled soul.

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Richard Lawson Singley

Author, educator, historian, former engineer at General Electric. Interested in the origins of all things. Author of A New Perspective richardlsingley@gmail.com