The Illegitimate Children of American Presidents
DNA evidence proved Thursday that confirmed bachelor Warren Harding also fathered a child. He joins Thomas Jefferson and more presidents with secret kids—and the list could grow.
Being the leader of the free world comes with a lot of responsibility. But apparently some of our leaders don’t think that responsibility extends to their marriages.
Long before Bill Clinton’s presidential sex scandal, a slew of men in the White House fathered illegitimate children. The latest to come to light is Warren G. Harding, who DNA evidence Thursday conclusively proved had a child with mistress Nan Britton.
Britton was criticized for attempting to blackmail Harding—who was president from 1921 until his death in 1923—telling tales of illicit sex in a White House coat closet. Yet after nearly 100 years, genetic tests confirm that Britton’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, was in fact Harding’s child. Britton’s story was the first to capture national attention as a self-proclaimed White House mistress. The story was all the more difficult to prove because Britton destroyed the letters they exchanged, and Harding’s family contended that he was sterile. Their affair lasted six and a half years.
The first president known to have had an illegitimate child was Thomas Jefferson, who likely fathered the children of one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. The widespread rumor was long denied by historians until a 1998 DNA test confirmed that Jefferson was indeed the father of one, if not all six, of Hemings’s children.
Relationships between slaveowners and slaves were classified as a sort of open secret in early 19th century Virginia, and it is unclear whether Jefferson’s children knew about their illegitimate siblings.
William Henry Harrison, who was in office just a month in 1841 before he died of pneumonia, also allegedly conceived children with a slave named Dilsia, but in his case the evidence is less conclusive.
The president who followed Harrison in the White House, John Tyler, was also rumored to have at least one love child: An African-American baptist minister named John William Dungy was said (PDF) to be Tyler’s grandson.
And the end of slavery did not stop our leaders from philandering.
Grover Cleveland was implicated in a violent 1873 sexual assault that resulted in the birth of an illegitimate son. The mother, Maria Halpin, allegedly threatened to inform the authorities, which prompted Cleveland to threaten her life. After the child was born, Cleveland arranged to have him taken from Halpin and placed in the Buffalo Orphan Asylum. Halpin was placed in a lunatic asylum but was later removed after the determination that she was not crazy but simply having her life destroyed by a president.
Today, advances in DNA testing could yield more Maury-esque paternity results—perhaps a nightmare for presidential families and perhaps vindication for others.