The past year saw the American Presidency surpass 225 years as an establishment of government and state. Presidents of the United States number among the most recognizable, beloved, and reviled (not mutually exclusive) figures in our nation’s history and that of the world. Since the inauguration of George Washington, forty-three men have been entrusted by the American people to safeguard our independence, defend the Constitution which binds a widely dispersed and diverse nation, and exemplify virtues and qualities of leadership that contribute to this country’s exceptionalism. Emerging from the seedbeds of the Revolution, genteel Southern patricians and their learned New England peers were joined by New York Dutch, Scotch-Irish settlers, proverbial young men who pioneered the West, and even descendants of relatively recent immigration as our presidential pantheon has expanded in number while also developing genealogically. The ancestries of recent presidents, Jimmy Carter, both Presidents George Bush, and Barack Obama, have embraced several of these regional and ethnic origins, much in keeping with the social development and mobility of the whole American people.
In 170 years, the New England Historic Genealogical Society has advanced genealogical discovery and scholarship on the Presidents of the United States as perhaps no other institution. At least twenty-three presidents were descendants of New England forebears and many of them and their immediate families were NEHGS members. President John Quincy Adams was honored with lifetime membership in the society’s first year. President Millard Fillmore did not wait for honorary membership to be extended; he joined NEHGS as a regular member. In 1917, Francis Lowell Coolidge submitted his application to become an NEHGS member and included the hand-drawn family chart below, tracing his descent from President Thomas Jefferson.
At the time, his patrilineal kinsman, Calvin Coolidge, was the governor of Massachusetts, a leading luminary of the Republican Party. In 1933, then former President Coolidge had honorary membership conferred. After his death the same year, former First Lady Grace Goodhue Coolidge became a member. She wrote of her interest in NEHGS.
At 101 Newbury Street, original portraits of Washington and John Adams seem to look on as genealogists continue to advance the study of the men who occupied the Oval Office and their families. Humorously, kinship among these leaders has given way to conspiracy theories and undue weight devoted to notions of elite privilege. Yet, rather than being related exclusively to each other, presidents with significant traceable ancestry are each kin to millions of other Americans, focal points in vast family networks with origins in the major migrations and among founding ancestors in the fabric of this nation.
Our presidents are related to us, related to each other, and will grow more and more akin to Americans generally, if the change in the regional and ethnic genealogical makeup of contemporary presidents can suggest anything about future ones. By tracing kinship to the several major regional and ethnic kinship groups, we also find our place in America’s family network.
NEHGS is the publisher of the preeminent compendium of presidential ancestry and kinship, Gary Boyd Roberts’s Ancestors of American Presidents, published most recently in a 2012 edition. A significant recent advancement pioneered by an NEHGS genealogist is Christopher Challender Child’s “The Maternal Ancestry of Abraham Lincoln, The Origins of Nancy (Hanks) Lincoln, A Study in Appalachian Genealogy,” in New England Ancestors 4.1 (Winter 2003).