American Presidents With Rumored Illegitimate Children

As the leaders of the free world, American presidents are expected to comport themselves to a higher standard. That means no gaffes, no criminal behavior, and certainly no mistresses and extramarital affairs — particularly when casting themselves as defenders of "family values." Now, none of this has stopped several presidents from pursuing other women. But when these affairs resulted in little bundles of joy, they became much harder to hide.

Only one president — Warren Harding — has been proven beyond all doubt to have fathered an out-of-wedlock child. But at least 11 other presidents have faced similar rumors of fathering children with slaves, mistresses, and short-term paramours. They run the full timeline of American history from George Washington to Donald Trump. Some have been definitely proven false, but the jury is still out on most of them. 

George Washington

George Washington allegedly fathered two out-of-wedlock children. The first was Thomas Posey. He did not know who his father was but never claimed it was Washington. That was a creation of the late-19th-century tabloid press. The second, more believable allegation was that he fathered a son named West Ford with a slave named Venus.

The story goes that at some point after the Revolution, Washington visited his brother's plantation. There, he had relations with Venus, who gave birth to Ford between 1784 and 1785. Given that relations between planters and slaves were common, the story seems believable on its face.

In a response to Ford's descendants, who requested information on the possible link, the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association and museum staff concluded that Washington was extremely unlikely to be the father. The association found that Washington, who carefully recorded his whereabouts, had no time to see Venus. He was busy rebuilding his business after eight years away in the field. He never visited his brother's plantation after coming back from the army and during the timeframe that Ford would have been conceived, and the anti-Washington press did not mention any rumors of it during the president's tenure. Venus may have visited Mt. Vernon in October 1785, but that would be outside the possible window for Washington to have been the father. And that also assumes that a smallpox infection in 1751 had not left Washington sterile.

Thomas Jefferson

In 1902, the Scioto Gazette ran a story whose author claimed to have met a man named Eston Hemings some decades earlier. Seeing that Eston was mixed race, he asked him about his parentage. He reportedly responded, "My mother, whose name I bear, belonged to Mr. Jefferson, and she never was married."

The "Mr. Jefferson" is President Thomas Jefferson, who was rumored to have fathered Eston, his brother Madison, and several other children with a slave named Sally Hemings (allegedly his wife Martha Jefferson's half-sister). An Ohio newspaper article from 1873 said Madison claimed the president and his mother had a sexual relationship in France. Sally returned to America with Jefferson in return for the promise of freedom for her children. Although their first child died, "[s]he gave birth to four others, and Jefferson was the father of all of them."

The evidence is a bit thin. Hemings rarely appears in Jefferson's records, although the president noted that others thought she was attractive. On the other hand, the Scholars Commission, which studied the case, noted that the 1873 account was riddled with inconsistencies, while Jefferson's silence on Sally in his letters doesn't support the existence of an affair. 

A 1998 DNA study clarified matters, confirming that Eston was related to the Jefferson male line. But it meant that any male Jefferson could have fathered him, not just the president. 

William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison is a pretty forgettable president. He achieved fame as a general for his victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. As president, however, he did virtually nothing because he died from pneumonia about 30 days into his term in 1841.

Officially, Harrison was married to Anna Symmes, with whom he had 10 children. But UNC African-American History Professor Kenneth Robert Janken writes in his book, "Walter White: Mr. NAACP," that Harrison had an additional six children with a slave named Dilsia during his time in Virginia. When Harrison threw his hat into the ring during the 1840 presidential election, Janken writes that he decided it would not serve him well to acknowledge illegitimate children who were enslaved.

To make himself more electable, Harrison allegedly ditched them (if they were indeed his), giving four to his brother. His brother then sold them to a Georgia planter. One of these children, Marie Harrison, eventually became the mistress of a man whom Janken referred to as "a fierce Confederate partisan." Together, they had four children, among them one Madeline Harrison — the mother of Civil Rights leader Walter White.

If the story is true, Walter White, the man who led the NAACP through the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, would be the president's great-grandson. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any evidence either way regarding Marie Harrison's paternity — only family histories and legends.

John Tyler

John Tyler became president in 1841 after William Henry Harrison died, becoming the first vice-president to obtain the presidency through succession. Tyler had a mostly quiet tenure. His biggest achievement was the annexation of Texas near the end of his term. He was also accused of sexually abusing his female slaves and fathering multiple children with them, per the Lewiston Sun Journal.

The more specific allegation is that Tyler fathered Baptist minister and teacher John Dunjee, apart from 15 other children between two wives. The evidence is thin. The outlet cites testimony from one of Tyler's escaped slaves, James Hambleton Christian. He called Tyler a cruel taskmaster, so much so, that household slaves often ran to his wife for protection. So, the allegation of sexually abusing female slaves has some support. The rumor that he fathered children with slaves originated during the 1840 presidential race, while the abolitionist newspaper The Emancipator sensationally alleged that Tyler supported his plantation by selling them.

The only other evidence is a secondhand story that John told his son Roscoe Dunjee that he was the president's grandson, making the rumors of a 16th Tyler child nothing more than hearsay. No one has done any DNA studies, which the Sun Journal suggests is likely because Tyler is an obscure, forgotten president. However, given historical trends, it is not impossible that he fathered John Dunjee, who went on to escape slavery and become the first Black student to attend Bates College in Maine.

Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland, the only United States president to serve two non-consecutive terms, was ensnared in a sex scandal that nearly tanked his 1884 presidential bid. Cleveland's opponents alleged he had behaved like a lothario with one Maria Halpin and had a child. Cleveland admitted to sleeping with Halpin in 1874. But she had also slept with several of his friends, making paternity uncertain. Cleveland stepped up and got the child adopted into a good home.

This, of course, was the campaign's official story. Halpin's account, published in the Chicago Tribune just four days before Election Day, contradicted it. The widow accused Cleveland of forcing himself on her, threatening her, committing her to a mental asylum against medical advice, and defaming her with charges of promiscuity, adding that Cleveland's attempt to pin the child on one of his friends was false. 

Ultimately, it seems most people believed Cleveland was indeed the father. One clergyman wrote, "These stories are put in circulation for political effect, but ... they cannot be refuted" (via Smithsonian Magazine). His defenders downplayed the incident as a youthful indiscretion even though Cleveland was 40 when it happened. Regardless, Republican James Blaine's political sins carried more weight with Gilded Age Americans than Cleveland's scandal, and he won the White House thanks to a razor-thin 2,000 vote margin in New York. 

Warren Harding

Warren Harding's reputation consisted of drinking illegal booze and playing poker, all while his advisors engaged in corruption. Complementing his vices was a rumor that he fathered his only known child with mistress Nan Britton.

Britton's affair with the president was a bit convoluted. In her own kiss-and-tell memoir "The President's Daughter," she said she fell for Harding in 1910 after finding out he was her English teacher's brother, becoming then and there a "full-fledged Republican." Years later she asked Harding, who was a senator at the time, for help finding a job. The exchange culminated in a meeting in the bridal chamber of New York City's Manhattan Hotel in 1917, where the affair began in earnest. Their daughter Elizabeth was born in 1919.

Harding eventually became president but died in office in 1923. Britton was crushed, according to her grandson James Blaesing's interview with The New York Times, because "[s]he just loved this guy. He was everything." She was even more devastated when she realized that Harding had not left her and Elizabeth any money in his will. Instead, Harding's family did everything it could to discredit Britton, accusing her of tarnishing his reputation for material gain.

In 2015, DNA testing of Harding's relatives revealed that Blaesing was in fact related to them. The only Harding Britton had ever slept with was the president, making him the only candidate for Elizabeth's father.

John F. Kennedy

Given President John F. Kennedy's torrid love life, including an alleged fling with Marylin Monroe, one would have expected at least one rumor of an out-of-wedlock child to follow him. Strangely, it does not appear he ever faced any credible accusations. Only once his ex-fiancée Alicia Corning Clark died in 2016 did anyone bother to check.

The socialite Clark and JFK got engaged in 1951 but canceled the wedding under pressure from his father. He reportedly did not want a woman with Jewish heritage in the family. In 1977, The New York Times reported that she had sued her ex in 1961, settling for $500,000, but the details were sealed. One can assume this was done to protect JFK, who had won the presidency in 1960, from scandal. Clark married three times, but never had children, and therefore had no descendants to leave her inheritance to. So the executor of her $17.5-million estate dug up her relationship with Kennedy to make sure.

Since next-of-kin can contest a will, her lawyer wanted to make sure there was not a potential Kennedy-Clark love child who would be entitled to a piece of the estate. So he issued FOIA requests, likely for documents related to the NYT 1977 exposé on Kennedy's personal life, realizing that the sealed complaint could in theory be about a love child. The investigation came up empty, and any allegations about a Kennedy love child are considered false.

Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon Johnson faced a slew of allegations of criminal conduct throughout his career, including rigging his 1948 Senate race and having his sister murdered. He also kept a mistress named Madeleine Brown, who alleged (among other bombshell claims) that she had carried Lyndon Johnson's illegitimate son.

In the 1987 tell-all interview with People Magazine, Madeleine said she started sleeping with Johnson in 1948 when she was 23, after her husband was institutionalized. Johnson considered her simply an affair while she really loved him. In 1950, Madeleine became pregnant with her second child, reportedly by Johnson. When he found out, she said he lost it." The child, Steven Brown, was born in late 1950.

The doctor put Madeleine's husband's name on the certificate, while Johnson, through lawyer Jerome Ragsdale, reportedly bought them a house and paid their bills. Steven grew up believing Ragsdale was his father but occasionally saw the president call on his mother. One time, Johnson reportedly told him, "Son, someday you are going to be in the White House." Steven said this was probably the closest the president ever came to acknowledging paternity.

Madeleine alleged a dying Johnson refused to recognize Steven, saying he had "the girls to consider, and  Lady Bird." Steven filed a lawsuit against the former first lady in 1987 for part of Johnson's estate, but it was thrown out for failure to appear. He died in 1990 of lymphatic cancer and his paternity remains an open question.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan had his share of political scandals and was the only president (at the time) to have been divorced, following his 1948 separation from Jane Wyman. Accusations of illegitimate children were not something he faced during his presidency. But according to the American Spectator, Reagan biographer Bob Spitz speculated in his book "Reagan: An American Journey," that the late president could have fathered a child in 1930-1931 with a college sweetheart.

Spitz's story correctly says that Reagan's sweetheart at Eureka College, Margaret Cleaver, did not return to the school to complete her junior year. The story claims she was absent for a time. Spitz speculated that she may have done so to either hide a pregnancy or have an abortion, citing the fact that she would have been near an institution that found homes for out-of-wedlock and abandoned children.

As salacious as the story would have been, the record does not support it. Citing public and academic records, the Spectator notes that Cleaver had simply transferred to the University of Illinois for a year, where she joined the Delta Zeta sorority and excelled academically. She kept her contacts with Eureka College strong, even attending homecoming with Reagan, who helped host it. She later returned to Eureka to finish her senior year but did not marry Reagan — against everyone's expectations. With available evidence contradicting the core of the allegation, this allegation appears to be simply a rumor.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton is the sex-scandal president, known for the Monica Lewinsky fiasco, harassment accusations from Paula Jones, and rape allegations from Juanita Broaddrick. Then there is his alleged encounter with Bobbie Ann Williams, who said she had a child named Danney Williams in 1985 by the then-Arkansas governor.

Danney explained his side of the story to WIBX 950. He said that after his birth, Clinton sent child support payments, which he claimed mysteriously stopped in 1993 — the year Clinton became president. Arkansas state troopers also reportedly delivered yearly Christmas presents for the child — all claims that were reportedly verified through his mother Bobbie Ann's polygraph test in 1993.

In 1999, DNA tests were reportedly carried out by Star Magazine that debunked the' paternity claims. However, Williams has argued the test wasn't precise enough. Danney further alleged that one of Clinton's friends and donors, who had an interest in burying the story, purposely botched the test. So, the question technically remains open.

Danney has said he is not interested in any hush money and just wants to meet his father. His own children also want to know who their grandfather is, so he has posted a video aimed at Clinton with pictures of them. 

George W. Bush

Oliver Stone's film "W." contains a scene in which a young George W. Bush ends up impregnating a woman identified as "Fran." This might confuse Americans, given that this allegation, which could have been a dealbreaker, never made it into the 2000 or 2004 presidential campaigns. In fact, it seems made up.

But the story's origin likely lies in Larry Flynt's book "Sex, Lies, and Politics." For context, the pornographer and Clinton donor made it his mission to expose the sexual peccadilloes and moral hypocrisy of Republicans following the Clinton impeachment. And he had his eye on George W. Bush. 

Flynt wrote that in 2000, a lawyer representing one "Susan" called to tell him that his client had the bombshell material he was looking for. Susan allegedly witnessed Bush call her boyfriend in 1971 — a guy identified as "Clyde" — in a state of panic because he had gotten one "Rayette" pregnant. This was before Roe v. Wade, when Texas banned abortion. Nevertheless, Clyde managed to procure the girl in question an abortion, Susan claimed.

Flynt was able to confirm that Bush and Rayette lived in the same apartment complex, known for raucous parties, but was not able to confirm the abortion with any medical professionals at the hospital where it allegedly took place. Rayette also denied the abortion, and the trail went cold. In the end, a disappointed Flynt backed off the claims because of a potential lawsuit, unable to destroy the "candidate of the sanctimonious right running on an anti-abortion platform." Thus, the claim remains firmly in the realm of hearsay.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump is the only recent president to father an out-of-wedlock child. His daughter Tiffany Trump was born in October 1993, while he and her mother, Marla Maples, married in December of the same year. But Trump was hit with rumors of a second illegitimate child during his 2016 presidential run.

Sometime before the 2016 election, the Associated Press reported that American Media, Inc. (AMI), the parent company of the National Enquirer, had paid $30,000 to Dino Sajudin, a doorman at one of Trump's properties. Sajudin claimed to have heard a rumor that Trump had fathered a child with one of his employees. AMI wanted exclusive rights to the story. 

There were different explanations given for the tabloid's actions. Dylan Howard, the Enquirer's senior editor, said he bought the rights because it was a bombshell that would sell, but dropped the story because it was too thin. Other employees contradicted him, saying that they had some promising leads but were told to ditch them from higher-ups — suggesting they intended to kill the story.

In the end, however, Trump's rumored paramour denied the allegations and the existence of any children. According to the statement of facts from Trump's New York indictment over alleged payments to Stormy Daniels, AMI discovered the story was false but tried to make sure any details did not come out until after the 2016 election to avoid hurting Trump's chances of victory.