by Pete Mazzaccaro
Mt. Airy historian Hal Gullan has spent a lot of time with the stories of presidential parents.
In addition to numerous books on sports figures and politicians – from biographies of St. Joseph’s Men’s Basketball Coach Phil Martelli to Philadelphia policing legend Michael Chitwood, Gullan authored two books on presidential families: 2001’s “Faith of Our Mothers” and 2004’s “First Fathers.”
This year, Gullan completed “Cradles of Power,” (Skyhorse Publishing), which pulls together the stories of the parents of every president from George Washington to Barack Obama.
“I like to write about subjects that haven’t been covered by other writers,” Gullan said in n interview at his Mt. Airy home. “To my knowledge this is the only book on all the presidential parents. It’s a subject that has been neglected, but very interesting to me.”
Gullan said he set out to write the book about two years ago, securing himself a regular outpost in the St. Joseph’s University Library, where he began to devour more than 200 presidential biographies, focused on what he could learn of the individual parents of presidents.
The result is a tight 350-page volume arranged into 20 chapters containing narrative vignettes of presidential parentage. Gullan, who describes his writing as popular as opposed to scholarly, is focused on telling stories, and, to that degree, the book is a success.
Within the scope of the book are remarkable stories, like that of Ulysses Grant, the Civil Wat general who couldn’t stand the sight of blood as a child and was devoted to his mother, Hannah. Grant would never get along with his father, who sent him to West Point against the boy’s wishes.
Notable are stories like that of Andrew Jackson’s mother, Elizabeth, who saved Jackson’s life after he was taken prisoner by a Tory neighbor during the Revolutionary War. “Betty” Jackson, as she was known, negotiated the release of a young Andrew and an older brother from a British prison.
The brother died from smallpox and Andrew became the lone survivor of Betty’s three sons. Yet she set out to negotiate the release of another neighbor’s son only to die in the effort from fever, leaving Andrew to fend for himself at the age of 14.
“She’s absolutely the most heroic,” Gullan said of Betty Jackson. “The most impressive might be Theodore Roosevelt Sr.”
The elder Roosevelt was wealthy and used his fortune to underwrite what Gullan describes as “every charity, hospital and museum of significance” in New York City.
“He was a tireless philanthropist,” Gullan said.
Gullan said there did not seem to be any unifying trait among presidential parents, except for the fact that many were absolutely devoted to their children. And for that reason, it’s easy to see why Gullan believes mothers were much more influential than fathers in the raising of presidents.
“They were far more involved in the nurturing,” Gullan said. “I’d say the first 100 years of American history; I think you’d find most fathers died young.”
It was far more common for these mothers to outlive their husbands, giving them a much larger hand at influencing the lives of their sons.
Of note as well, Gullan said, was that many did not want their children to go into politics.
“As Jack Kennedy said, ‘Mothers all want their sons to grow up to be president, but they don’t want them to become politicians in the process,’” Gullan said.
Many presidential mothers wanted their sons to become ministers. Fathers tended to want their sons to study law. Only four U.S. presidents did not study law, yet only one actually studied divinity – Woodrow Wilson, whose father, The Rev., Dr. Joseph Ruggles Wilson, was a noted Covenanter Presbyterian minister. It was the Covenanter philosophy of predetermination that Gullan believes led Wilson into the sort of hubristic decision making that would see him agree to the League of Nations before consulting congress.
All in all, “Cradles of Power,” is an eminently readable and compelling collection of stories about the parents of presidents and provides an excellent background on just how influential the parents of presidents have been, not only on their sons but for the country as a whole.
Pete Mazzaccaro can be reached at 215-248-8802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.