Editor’s Note: Alexis Coe is a presidential historian, a fellow at New America and the author of, most recently, “You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington.” The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Presidential history is lousy with ne’er-do-well sons. John Quincy Adams was the earliest exception and the widely-admired Beau Biden the most recent, but for much of America’s nearly 250-year history, First Sons have been embarrassing their fathers—but until now, virtually none of them were considered grist to sway a presidential election.
Republicans are betting that President Joe Biden’s other son Hunter, the first wayward offspring of a sitting president to be charged by the Justice Department, will cost his father dearly in the political arena. American history tells us a different story: Bad presidential sons are as old as the nation itself, yet political opponents have never thought weaponizing them would win an election.
If voters want the American Experiment to continue, they should view this unprecedented situation with alarm: Our democracy only functions when we play by the same rules. If there is evidence that a sitting president, a former president, a presidential candidate, a presidential heir or anyone else, has committed a crime, he or she should be held accountable. But in modern America, one party has just shown us that no one is above the law. The other appears to believe in an eye for an eye–but if they come up short, an eye for an heir will do just fine.
One founding father did try to warn us about this sort of thing. In his 1796 Farewell Address, George Washington cautioned “friends and citizens” against political parties “sharpened by the spirit of revenge.” It was clear even then that he was worried future generations might not heed his warning.
To be fair, this founding father was used to being ignored by younger generations. Washington, the subject of my last book, played Sisyphus to John (Jacky) Custis, his step-son, for 22 of his 26 years. “I never did in my Life know a Youth so exceedingly indolent, or so surprisingly voluptuous,” Jack’s tutor, Reverend Jonathan Boucher, wrote to George Washington. But that was before Wash, Jack’s son, was born. Washington described Wash, who he raised while president, as having “almost unconquerable disposition to indolence in every thing that did not tend to his amusements.” In addition to gambling, drinking and womanizing, historians believe Wash fathered at least 10 children with enslaved women.
Washington anticipated some ill effects power-hungry political parties could do to our democracy, but even he couldn’t have imagined his successors in office—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, who Washington blamed for the rise of partisanship during his presidency—would target his family. The same was true for Madison. It was common knowledge that Madison’s reckless stepson, John Payne Todd, was jailed on several occasions for debt and guns. “I pitty our Good Brother Madison,” John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1817.
“You have tried your game of robbery long enough,” Mary, Abraham Lincoln’s widow, wrote to Robert, their only surviving son, after a year-long campaign to free herself from the asylum he’d damned her to. Robert, who wanted to be seen as Lincoln’s heir apparent, was determined to be the center of attention at the 10-year anniversary of his father’s assassination. He set her up for trial on insanity charges (which required a jury trial in Illinois) in a kangaroo court that was so appalling, the public rallied around Mary—and turned on Robert.
And in the modern era, not much has changed. When George H.W. Bush was president, both of his sons made news. George W. Bush was best-known for partying, but Neil Bush was sued by federal regulators for allegedly violating conflict-of-interest regulations and failing to act to stop improper loans when he was the director of Silverado Banking, Savings and Loan. But he was allowed to settle out of court. And that’s the way it usually goes.
I could write articles about all the presidents’ daughters, too. “I can do one of two things,” Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying about his attention-grabbing 19-year-old daughter. “I can be President of the United States or I can control Alice Roosevelt. I cannot possibly do both.” Patti Davis, Ronald Reagan’s daughter, protested her father’s administration, wrote a tell-all autobiography and posed for Playboy.
I could fill a book with the sad and sordid tales of the presidents’ bad relatives, but in particular, their sons. It’d be much easier than to sleuth through a presidential archive, which can yield few revelations—or none at all. But the sons, who take up very little space in those archives, are comparatively cheap thrills. My fan base might welcome a fun, fast book—before completely turning on me.
Devoted students of history would object to wasting precious time and resources on a nothingburger scandal about a president’s unelected son. That’s what social media is for.
If Hunter Biden dominates the news during the 2024 race while former President Donald Trump stands trial in multiple courtrooms, it won’t be good for the Republican agenda, either. If Hunter fails to beat the gun charges using a Second Amendment argument, a favorite of conservatives, it’ll open the door to more gun reform. And it’ll expose another threadbare lie, too: Trump, who has been indicted four times while (in addition to denying wrongdoing) while whining about being targeted by political enemies, can’t credibly claim to be tough on crime—but Biden can. If I were his biographer, I know just what I would write:
Unlike his immediate predecessor in office, who sought to bend the Justice Department to his will, President Joseph P. Biden is so deeply committed to equal justice that he empowered that department to pursue anyone they believed had broken the law—including his only surviving son.