A particular variety of nuclear family has become recognizable as the “presidential” kind of family: a married father and mother, the kids they’ve begotten together, a handful of household pets. In the 20th century and beyond, such families have dominated the White House, from the Tafts to the (Franklin Delano) Roosevelts to the Kennedys to the Obamas, with only a few exceptions.
But a look back further in history suggests that this wasn’t always the norm. A number of 18th- and 19th-century commanders in chief had what we might now call “blended” families—George Washington himself, for example, had no children of his own, and was a stepfather to his wife Martha’s four children with her previous husband, who died. And the families on the campaign trail for the 2020 election suggest that the tidy, intact nuclear-family unit may not be the template for a first family much longer.
Today, “we’re still caught in this kind of post–World War II mold of what families look like,” says Barbara Perry, the director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for presidential scholarship. “People sometimes jokingly talk about the old-style ‘American family’ of the sitcoms in the 1960s. But that’s been the standard that we applied for our presidents, too, because that’s how society viewed the ideal American family—with the mother and the father and the 2.2 children.” Perry notes that in recent years, even candidates for local office have positioned themselves as members of relatively traditional families: When she gets mailings from candidates in local races in Virginia, “even those candidates almost always show themselves with their families,” she says. “It’s always a spouse, and sometimes children, and a dog—always a dog.”