Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > Four Controversial Presidential Sons-in-Law

Jun 23, 2020

Four Controversial Presidential Sons-in-Law

tags: presidential history

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of  Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.

This author has already published on significant Presidential Offspring in American history in a two part series.

Now sons-in-law of presidents have become a subject of discussion due to the controversies that have arisen around the role of President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, married to his older daughter Ivanka.

Which other sons in law of Presidents have featured prominently in American history? There are arguably three other presidential sons-in-law who deserve attention and focus.  All four, including Kushner, became significant and controversial.

The first case is that of Jefferson Davis, who was married to Sarah Knox, the second daughter of Zachary Taylor, the 12thPresident, before his presidency. Sadly she died after a few months of marriage from either malaria or yellow fever in 1835 at age 21, and Davis was severely ill for a number of months.  Taylor had not approved of the marriage, but later hailed Davis’s military involvement in the Mexican War in 1847.  But Davis was not supportive of any limitation on slavery expansion, and opposed the Compromise of 1850. Ironically, the rumor was that his former father-in-law was ready to veto the compromise bills, and to send troops into the South if any state tried to secede.  But Taylor’s sudden death on July 9, 1850, prevented any open conflict between the former father in law and son in law.  Davis went on to become Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce from 1853-1857, a US Senator from Mississippi, and then President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Therefore he was and is rightly considered by many to be a traitor to the nation and one of the most reprehensible public figures in American history.

The second case was that of Nicholas Longworth, who married Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice Lee Roosevelt. Longworth was an Ohio state legislator from Cincinnati before being elected to serve in the House of Representatives from 1903 to 1933, with one two-year term out of office from 1913-1915 after losing re-election. He married Alice Roosevelt in a widely publicized White House wedding in 1906.  Despite the family connection, Longworth supported incumbent William Howard Taft when TR challenged him as the Bull Moose Progressive Presidential candidate in 1912. This caused a breach in his marriage, which still survived, but made many think it remained a marriage of convenience, not love, since Alice was always outspoken in public on every topic imaginable.  It would later be revealed that Alice’s one daughter was fathered by Idaho Senator William Borah and not by her husband.

Longworth, in  his long career in the House of Representatives, graduated to being the Republican House Majority Leader in 1923, and was Speaker of the House from 1925-1931. He became as dominant a figure as Joseph Cannon had been earlier in the century, and worked to punish the more progressive elements in the Republican caucus by exercising total control over the House Rules Committee. Longworth even came into conflict at times with President Herbert Hover during the early days of the Great Depression.  Despite his controversial career, a new House office building was named in his honor in 1962. 

The third case was that of William Gibbs McAdoo, who married Woodrow Wilson’s youngest daughter, Eleanor Randolph, at a White House wedding in 1914 (they divorced in 1935).  McAdoo had already been enlisted to help Wilson win election in 1912, and after his wife died that same year, he sought a marriage with Wilson’s daughter.  McAdoo had a business and legal career in Knoxville, Tennessee and New York City and was deeply engaged in transportation projects. He left these enterprises when he became chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1912, and then joined the Wilson Administration as Secretary of the Treasury.  He was engaged in the setting up of the Federal Reserve Banking System and was credited with preventing a depression in America following the 1914 outbreak of World War I by shutting down the New York Stock  Exchange for four months. His actions ensured that the United States in the future would be a creditor nation, rather than the debtor nation it had been before the war broke out. He also set up the U.S. Railroad Administration once the world war broke out, and held dual responsibility as he remained Secretary of the Treasury, until his resignation at the end of 1918 after the war came to an end.  

A believer in racial segregation from his upbringing in Georgia and Tennessee, McAdoo promoted racial segregation in the Treasury Department, and implemented Jim Crow laws endorsed by his boss and father in law. He ran for President in 1920 and 1924, failing both times to secure the nomination, but caused controversy as the “Southern” candidate against northern urban “progressives”  such as New York Governor Alfred E. Smith (who was a Roman Catholic).  In the 1924 Democratic National Convention, the longest in history at 103 ballots, McAdoo was the Ku Klux Klan endorsed candidate. John W. Davis became the nominee after a record 103 ballots, and went on to lose to Republican President Calvin Coolidge. In both conventions, McAdoo had been the front runner, but party rules required a two-thirds majority. The failed nomination bid ended McAdoo’s Presidential ambitions.  He went on to be elected to the Senate for one term from California from 1933-1938, when he was defeated for renomination.  His generally perceived good looks, energy, and enthusiasm were not enough to sustain him beyond his heyday under his father in law.

Today Jared Kushner, the son in law of President Donald Trump, has become highly controversial in the three and a half years Trump has been President. Some say he is the second most important figure in the Administration to the president himself. Kushner has overruled and outlasted many other officials who have resigned or been fired, and many suggest his impact has been negative. Kushner draws no salary; Lyndon B. Johnson signed a nepotism law, likely inspired by his poor relationship with former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, which forbids a government salary being paid to anyone related to the President of the United States.  

Despite the implication of nepotism, Kushner has become a central figure, which few would have forecast in 2017. His specific title is Senior Adviser to President Trump, and he has been given responsibility for a myriad of issues, none of which most political commentators believe he has successfully addressed.  He was a real estate developer, investor, and newspaper publisher before he planned the digital, online and social media strategy for his father-in-law in the 2016 presidential campaign, as well as being speech writer and de facto campaign manager during much of that campaign.  A Democrat in earlier years, and then an Independent, he became a Republican in 2018, and is the chief strategist in the 2020 campaign for Trump. 

Kushner has been the center of controversies. He worked with potentially sensitive information without a security clearance, which was not granted until May 2018 under questionable circumstances. He is accused of mixing government with business and creating conflicts of interest, using private email for government business, being involved in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, promoting a Middle East peace plan that favors Israel and has been rejected by the Palestinians as not balanced, and managing Trump’s response to the COVID-19  pandemic. Of the last, Kusher has said it was a great success even as deaths mounted in April and May to more than 100,000.  He also has been seen as the major protector of nativist adviser Stephen Miller and his emphasis on limiting immigration into America.

There have also been accusations of his involvement with Russian agents during the 2016 campaign, conflicts of interest over his real estate dealings, and gaining favored treatment for his wife in obtaining Chinese trademarks.  Additionally, Kushner has been accused of being a slumlord, mistreating tenants in housing projects in Maryland.  His public persona has been very standoffish, and he has rarely spoken before news cameras.  It has been said that anyone working for Trump who angers Kushner will soon be gone, and Trump has indeed had more turnover in his Presidency than anyone in a first term.  

Kushner’s latest reported effort is to reduce the Republican platform to just a few basic ideas at its upcoming convention this summer, attempting to transform permanently the Republican Party image.  But there are many people quietly behind the scenes criticizing Kushner as a force who is undermining his father-in-law, and adding to his own unflattering public image, which he seems not to be concerned about.  All the time, Jared and wife Ivanka are enriching themselves in their personal assets, and some think when Trump leaves office, Kushner might face prosecution.  

So as controversial as Jefferson Davis, Nicholas Longworth, and William Gibbs McAdoo were in public life, only McAdoo was directly involved with his father in law in government during the Presidential term, and his most controversial times were in the 1920s, after Wilson had left office. Jared Kushner’s actions during Trump’s administration seem to be setting up much more news and controversy in the future.

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