By Stephen Yoch
George Washington is often called the father of our country, which is ironic for two reasons. First, he fathered no children; and second, he spent most of his childhood without a father. Washington’s dad died when George was 11. Even before his death, his father was often absent, traveling for business.
Washington’s mother never remarried. George, as the eldest of her children, was forced to bear the heavy burdens of providing leadership of his five other siblings and assisting his mother in managing their limited resources. As a result of his father’s death, George was not given a first class education. He felt the burden of that lack of education for the rest of his life.
Historians and psychologists can only speculate on the impact of the early loss of a father on a developing adolescent. What is clear is that an inordinate number of the fathers of U.S. presidents died while their sons were young or abandoned them. Twelve presidents (just under a third of those who have served in the office) lost their fathers at a young age: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, Hubert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama. Of those, three had fathers die before they were even born: Andrew Jackson, Rutherford B. Hayes and Bill Clinton. Many others fathers died when their sons were young: James Garfield (age 1), Andrew Jackson (age 6), George Washington (age 11), and Thomas Jefferson (age 14).
Even before Washington’s father’s death, George was largely left to the care of his mother. This “alive but ignored” category is shared by others including George Herbert Walker Bush who admitted that he played little role in raising future president George W. Bush.
Nineteen presidents lost their fathers before they were 30, and only two fathers were actually able to attend their sons’ inaugurations. What appears consistent among many of the absent fathers, is that even in neglect or death, they were venerated and high achievers. For example, Jacob Johnson, father of Andrew Johnson, was the poorest presidential father, yet was a veritable legend in his hometown. Even Barrack Obama, who was largely abandoned by his father, was always proud that his father was the first African admitted to the University of Hawaii and graduated first in his class. While many presidents have been affirmed and coddled by their mothers’ love, the hurt and frustration of an absent father may have caused them to strive for greater achievements.
There is an interesting study, “The Fiery Chariot: A Study of British Prime Ministers in Search of Love,” analyzing British prime ministers noting a similar history of loss at a young age. It confirms that prime ministers lose their fathers at a much higher rate than the population as a whole. One possible explanation for achievement in the face of such loss is the development of hyper-sensitivity of the feelings of others around them as a coping mechanism. Certainly, the death of a father figure often forces an early leadership role as was the case for George Washington.