Genealogy has a way of surprising you. When you start piecing together your family tree on Ancestry, its vast library of historical records can reveal plenty of unexpected truths about your relatives, and even reveal connections with famous figures from the past. Now, as the world continues to adjust to the outcome of 2020’s dramatic presidential election, it’s interesting to look at what the family trees of US presidents can tell us about their linked lineages.
First up, there have been two pairs of father/son presidents. John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, was the offspring of John Adams, the second president (who, on learning his son had won the election, remarked ‘No man who ever held the office of President would congratulate a friend on obtaining it’). Far more recently, we had George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
FDR was related to at least 11 presidents overall
There’s also been one grandfather/grandson set of presidents – namely, ninth president William Henry Harrison and 23rd president, Benjamin Harrison. Neither are particularly well remembered, although William Henry Harrison does hold the unenviable record of having the shortest tenure of any US president (he died exactly one month after taking office).
But what about the other, more convoluted connections between presidents?
Take Franklin D. Roosevelt. A figure of towering importance thanks to his handling of the Great Depression and the Second World War, FDR’s most obvious presidential relation was Theodore Roosevelt, who was in office a few decades prior. Despite the shared surname, the men were actually fairly distant relations, hailing from two distinct branches of the family – the Oyster Bay Roosevelts (Teddy’s line) and the Hyde Park Roosevelts (Franklin’s). That said, the young FDR was on close, fond terms with his older relative, and his wife Eleanor was actually Theodore’s niece.
But Franklin’s links to previous presidents went far beyond the Roosevelt clan. A look at his family tree reveals FDR was related to at least 11 presidents overall, including John Adams and Ulysses S. Grant.
Another ex-resident of the Oval Office with intriguing past connections is Barack Obama. Turns out, he’s a very distant cousin of his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush. Their shared ancestors were Samuel Hinckley and Sarah Soole, a Kent couple who migrated to the New World in the 17th Century and were the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents of both Obama and Bush. Genealogical research has also shown Obama to be the distant cousin of other presidents, including Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman.
As for the ancestry of Joe Biden, the focus has largely been not on his links to previous American presidents (he’s probably 8th or 9th cousins to a few, if the examples above are anything to go by), but rather his ties to the Old World. Shortly after the election came the fascinating revelation that his great uncle, Arthur Albert Biden, had been a bus driver in Peckham who also served in World War One.
Of course, it’s Biden’s Irish side which has received far more attention, because US politicians have a long habit of bigging up any Celtic roots they have. A particularly awkward example was then-Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, who visited Donegal in 1998 to trace his alleged ties to the area ahead of a possible presidential run. In front of a gaggle of dignitaries and journalists, Gingrich was told in no uncertain terms that there was no record of any family connection whatsoever. Journalist Lawrence Donegan couldn’t resist asking the embarrassed Gingrich, ‘Now that you’re officially not an Irishman, Mr Speaker, would you agree that you’ve got no chance of becoming president?’
Fortunately for Joe Biden, his Irish roots are very real, with an early ancestor being his great-great-great-grandfather Edward Blewitt of County Mayo. In fact, his Irish lineage has triggered serious political speculation over whether it would impact his approach to Brexit – a clip of Biden saying ‘I’m Irish’ to a BBC reporter even went viral, with Nigel Farage tweeting it was evidence that ‘Biden hates the UK’.
It’ll certainly be fascinating to see if any future presidents will have strong links to previous ones. There’s already been speculation of a possible Trump dynasty taking shape, should the likes of Donald Jr or Ivanka make a run in 2024, while there has long been a spotlight on George P. Bush. The nephew of George W. Bush and grandson of George H.W. Bush, he’s of Mexican-American heritage and has been touted as the man who can – in the words of The Atlantic magazine – ‘resurrect his family’s brand’.
Time will tell. In the meantime, it’s good to know any of us – whether we’re running for the highest office on Earth or not – can trace our family trees for generations through Ancestry.