How 8 Revolutionary Heroes Stack Up as Dads
A year ago I wrote about how reading about the presidents helped me raise a newborn. Now, that newborn girl is a walking, talking toddler bursting with personality.
For a long time Father’s Day – even the words father and dad – made me feel a sort of emptiness since I lost my father when I was young. Now, thanks to my daughter, the word “dad” fills me with unbelievable joy and pride and I’m thrilled to be celebrating my second Father’s Day as a dad.
I’m still trying to glean fatherly advice from my reading, and author Joshua Kendall just came out with a book that does just that, First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama. Reading my review copy of Kendall’s book made it clear that I’m learning more from the presidents about the kind of father I don’t want to be than the one I do.
That led me to this highly subjective ranking of eight Founding Fathers, ranked from absolute worst to world’s greatest dad.
#8: Thomas Jefferson: The Deserter
Thomas Jefferson is often depicted as a wise old patriarch surrounded by grandchildren, but when it came to his own children’s formative years he was the master of the French exit.
The widowed Jefferson went off to France to serve as minister and left his 2-year-old and 6-year-old daughters behind. Only after hearing that his youngest died of whooping cough did he send for poor Polly, who didn’t want to leave her aunt and had to be tricked into getting on the ship to Europe. I feel bad tricking my toddler into eating chicken, and that experience lasts way less than six weeks and has zero chance of pirates.
As the father of a young girl I also take issue with some beauty advice Jefferson gave his 11-year-old daughter: “A lady who has been seen as a sloven or a slut in the morning, will never efface the impression she then made with all the dress and pageantry she can afterwards involve herself in. Nothing is so disgusting to our sex as a want of cleanliness and delicacy of yours.”
Aside from calling his daughter a filthy whore, there’s the matter of the half-dozen kids Jefferson had with his slave, Sally Hemings. He may have kept them from hard labor in the fields and freed them upon his death, but that still doesn’t earn him father of the year in my book. He is the worst.
#7: Alexander Hamilton: The Loud and Proud
Hamilton was a loving father who passed his ambition (or hambition, if you will) on to his children. The problem is he also passed on his worst traits: his pride and his inability to close his mouth.
Those qualities got his 19-year-old son Phillip killed in a duel he entered over defending his unfaithful father’s honor. You would think he would have learned his lesson after his son kicked the bucket, but those very same qualities led Alexander himself to a duel three years later in the same spot. He died, leaving his wife Eliza to take care of their seven children, including a 2-year-old son Phillip who was named after his late brother.
Aaron Burr may have fired the shot but Alexander Hamilton is the one responsible for depriving us of a third act of his musical, and for making his children grow up without a father.
Not cool, Alex. Not cool.
#6: James Madison: The Enabler
James Madison, just like his BFF-turned-rival George Washington, had no children of his own but had one craptacular stepson. Dolley Madison’s son John Payne Todd was a violent alcoholic with a crushing gambling addiction. Madison mortgaged his home Montpelier to pay off more than $40,000 of his stepson’s debts, but that still didn’t keep Payne out of debtor’s prison.
Washington had enough sense to stop his own carousing stepson from going to Europe where he could have truly devoted himself to studying his vices, but Madison lacked that discipline. He sent Payne to Europe to practice diplomacy, but all he practiced was his own bizarre triathlon of drinking, shooting, and buying art.
James Madison tried to shield Dolley from the extent of Payne’s debts, but she found out the truth after James died and she ended up selling off Montpelier to pay for her stepson’s follies.
“Little Jemmy” Madison can’t be held responsible for all his stepson’s poor decisions, but he was an enabler when what his son needed was tough love.
#5: Benjamin Franklin: The Asexual Reproducer
At 24 years old, Benjamin Franklin had an illegitimate son, William. Later William had his own illegitimate son, which Ben raised. So Ben Franklin raised both his illegitimate son and his illegitimate son’s illegitimate son as his own. The strangest part is the identity of both mothers is unknown.
Not only did William inherit his father’s mutant ability to reproduce without a female, but he also inherited his famous independent spirit. William rebelled against his dad’s rebellion by fighting for Britain in the Revolutionary War. That decision led to his permanent exile in London and lifelong rift with his father.
Ben showed mercy toward his son in his peace talks with Britain where he made it a point that American Loyalists would not be prosecuted. That meant William would only be guilty of breaking his father’s heart, but not treason. I have to give the famed inventor credit for taking responsibility of his son and grandson, and for allowing his little bastard to make his own terrible choices.
#4: John Adams: The Pressure-Cooker
Joshua Kendall calls John Adams a “tiger dad” for his authoritarian ways. Adams definitely knew how to put on the heat. When his son John Quincy was just 10 years old, Adams urged him to read Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War (in Greek) as it would prepare him for “the part which may be allotted to you to act on the stage of life.”
Adams’s tone was more blunt when John Quincy was 26:
“You come into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre. And if you do not rise to the head not only of your own profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own laziness, slovenliness and obstinancy.”
I mean, that’s better than calling him a slut, but it’s still a lot of pressure. Fortunately John Quincy rose to his father’s high expectations; his brothers did not. Both Charles Adams and his brother Thomas died from their struggles with alcohol.
I admire John Adams’s desire for his children to reach their fullest potential, but he was too demanding and played favorites with John Quincy, giving him more opportunities and attention than the others. And he passed those tendencies on to his son, whose own children were a mixed bag of great success and heartbreaking failure.
At 90 years old, John Adams looked back at his life and said, “At this time it seems wicked to have left such a wife and such a family as I did, but it was done in the service of my country.” That’s pretty good as excuses go, and I give him points for recognizing his faults. But the man who called himself an “assemblage of sloth, sleep, and littleness” thrown by great events into “rage a little like a Lion” had a fathering style that raged a little too much like a tiger dad for me.
#3: George Washington: The Military Father
George Washington was a beloved father to his military family of surrogate sons Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens, and his favorite – the Marquis de Lafayette. The Frenchman called Washington “my adoptive father” and Washington told Lafayette he earned his “perfect love and gratitude that neither time nor absence can impair.”
Words like that from Washington were rare and reserved for a select few he truly loved. One person that inner circle did not include was Washington’s stepson, Jacky, who was a constant disappointment to his stepdad. As a child, Jacky did “not much like books,” and as an adult he did not much like to amount to anything. Washington tried to make Jacky appreciate the value of education and military honor, but his attempts were lost on the boy who preferred gambling.
The Father of His Country could inspire a nation, but he couldn’t inspire his own stepson. I give Washington a lot of credit for being supportive but firm throughout Jacky’s life, and for saving his emotional investments for people who returned his feelings. Washington is an excellent reminder that the qualities of a great father extend far beyond traditional family.
#2: James Monroe: The Family Man
Several Founders spent time as diplomats in Europe, but James Monroe was the rare one who didn’t leave his wife or any children behind – his daughters went where he went. In a brief exception when he was away practicing law, he inquired about his baby daughter Eliza in his own sweet alien-sounding way: “Has she grown any, and is there any perceptible alteration in her?” He called her “a little monkey” and closed with “Kiss the little babe for me & take care of yourself & of her.”
Monroe giddily announced Eliza’s birth to Jefferson by writing, “Mrs. Monroe hath added a daughter to our society, who tho’ noisy, contributes greatly to its amusement.” I know George Washington hated the guy’s guts, but how can you read that and not love him?
Eliza, the little monkey, basically grew up to become Mary from Downton Abbey – Louisa Adams said she was “made up of so many great and little qualities, is so full of agreeables and disagreeables…so proud and so mean, I scarcely ever met such a compound.”
As mean as she may have been, Eliza was kind enough to volunteer as a nurse during a local malaria outbreak. Her sister Maria Hester was even more kind. The devoted daughter took Monroe into her home in his old age. The family man got to spend the rest of his days as he had spent most of his life – with the ones he loved.
#1: Aaron Burr: The Ladies Man
You could argue that Aaron Burr isn’t actually a Founding Father since he didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, but this is my list and I say that if you kill a Founding Father you become one. And sure, Burr may have offed Alexander Hamilton and conspired to break up the country, but he was such a great father to his dear Theodosia that he earns my #1 spot.
Burr strongly believed that women should be educated as well as men, and his feminist ideals even extended to introducing a bill in Congress to give women the right to vote – 136 years before they got it.
He insisted on a well-rounded education for his daughter that included geography, math, Greek, Latin, French, and physical activities like skating – “falling twenty times” would teach her the “advantage of a hard head.” Theodosia learned to read and write at 3, and at 15 an English visitor described her as being:
“elegant without ostentation, and learned without pedantry. At the same time that she dances with more grace than any young lady of New York, Miss Theodosia Burr speaks French and Italian with facility, is perfectly conversant with the writers of the Augustan age, and not unacquainted with the language of the father of poetry.”
After the deadly duel with Hamilton and his acquittal for treason, Burr fled to Europe to lie low. Theodosia kept in constant contact, sending him money and helping to negotiate his safe return during the War of 1812. When he landed in New York, she set sail from Georgetown, South Carolina to reunite with him. Tragically, her ship was lost at sea and she was never heard from again. A leading theory is that the ship was taken by pirates. (I warned you about those pirates.)
The greatest lesson about fatherhood I’ve learned from the founders and their families is to treasure every moment as much as I can, because life can be fragile and fleeting.
I realize these founders were especially preoccupied with, well, founding, and that may have prevented them from being the best parents. They still have one thing in common – they all strived to be great and inspire greatness in the next generation. And many possess the qualities of my own dad that I try to emulate: devotion to his wife and kids, love for his family and friends, intellectual curiosity, do-it-yourself ingenuity, and a wicked sense of humor.
First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama by Joshua Kendall
Fathers as Founders: The Private Lives and Politics of the American Revolutionaries by Lorri Glover
Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul Nagel
John Adams by David McCullough