Who hasn’t railed against their parents at some point? Whether it’s adolescent angst and rebellion, your typical childhood lunacy, or the variously whacky impulses that overtake plenty of people well into adulthood, whatever we do is always going to be seen as a reaction to or a reflection of our parents to some extent. But when one of your folks is the president and the microscopic glare of the public eye suddenly becomes an issue, you’re probably expected to conduct yourself in a more strictly measured way. Rebellious political affiliations, iffy career moves, and rowdy leisure activities suddenly carry a lot more baggage than they might otherwise.
Across 200-odd years and 45 presidencies, scores of snot-nosed little brats, punks, and rascals have graced the halls of the White House, and the majority live relatively quiet lives. Presidential children are just people at the end of the day, and subject to the same whims as the rest of us. But they also have the whole country watching them, and the troublemakers among them tend to stand out a bit.
Alice Roosevelt, Teddy’s eldest and kookiest
Assuming no one’s getting hurt and no one’s marrying their first cousin, often the most endearing presidential kids are the most non-presidential. And unless voodoo hexes and snakes in purses are an everyday occurrence for you, it doesn’t really get any more unorthodox than Teddy Roosevelt’s eldest daughter, Alice.
In an era when women were expected to simply conform and avoid the limelight unless they’d gotten married, had a famous baby, or passed away, Alice wasted no time ditching convention and waving her freak flag high and proud. She was known to smoke on the roof of the White House, ride in fast cars with boys, stay out late partying, place bets, and (brace yourselves) even wear pants and chew gum. Best of all, she had a pet snake named Emily Spinach — after her aunt Emily and because the snake was green — that she would carry around with her, and legend has it that she buried a voodoo doll of the next first lady, Nellie Taft, in the front lawn before leaving the White House.
Some couldn’t get enough of her raucous exploits and found her delightful. Others were positively aghast, and fallen monocles could be heard plunking into mint julep glasses around the country. She continued to be a prominent socialite for decades and befriended a number of successive presidents, regaling tales of her wild youth to one enthralled old white dude after another, before finally packing it in at the age of 96 in 1980.
Tad Lincoln, Honest Abe’s wild child and the first turkey pardoner
The White House might be a fancy-pants presidential palace of marble and portraiture and decorum, but kids are still kids, and they’re gonna bring the noise no matter how many dignitary visits or cabinet meetings are on the agenda.
The youngest of Lincoln’s four sons, Tad was at one point the only child living at the White House, with Robert away at Harvard and Willie and Eddie having died of illnesses. Tad made his presence felt like a tremor, though, according to the Smithsonian. Among other brilliantly bonkers antics, he once hitched a chair to a pair of goats and drove them through a crowded reception hosted by the first lady. He also tried to sell his parents’ clothes in a yard sale on the front lawn.
While President George H.W. Bush officially started the turkey pardoning tradition in 1989, Tad did it over a century prior. In late 1863, President Lincoln had obtained a live turkey to be chowed on that Christmas, but Tad took a liking to the bird straight away, even naming him Jack. When Christmas came around and Jack was on the menu, Tad protested to save his feathered friend from the carving board. Abe, rarely able to say no to Tad, agreed to spare the bird and gave him a written reprieve. A rambunctious ball of energy by all accounts, Tad’s life was cut far too short at the age of 18, but his legacy as a zealous champion of the humble turkey was cemented before he departed.
Amy Carter, tireless activist
People often start trouble for the right reasons, and a good dollop of disorder in the face of institutional oppression and abuse can be just what’s needed. Obviously not everyone was happy with how Jimmy Carter’s activist daughter Amy chose to live her life throughout the ’80s and ’90s, but it’s not hard to imagine her pops might have approved of all the feathers she ruffled along the way.
The public had their eye on Amy during her time in the White House, just waiting for something worth gossiping over, but other than reading a book during a formal state dinner and naming her cat Misty Malarky Ying Yang, there wasn’t really much to report. She was only 9 years old when her father was elected, and it wasn’t until after he had left office that she started to make headlines as a committed political activist.
Politically inclined and resolute in her beliefs from a young age, by the time Amy was in her late teens she really wasn’t playing around. According to the New York Times, she was arrested in 1985 during an anti-apartheid demonstration at the South African embassy, and again in 1987 during one of many anti-CIA demonstrations she’d been taking part in. She was dismissed from Brown University that same year for academic reasons, supposedly, but some found that hard to believe. None of this seemed to sour her relationship with her old man, and she even illustrated a children’s book he wrote in 1995.
Quentin Roosevelt, roughhouser supreme
The "White House Gang" wasn’t a group of bank robbers who wore rubber Lincoln and Washington masks on the job, nor was it a bunch of slick, oily-haired ex-presidents roaming the streets smoking cigarettes and challenging high school hoodlums to dance-offs. No, it was just a band of (mostly) infant mischief-makers Quentin Roosevelt and company.
Quentin — Theodore’s youngest son — and his esteemed cohorts earned a reputation for some solid roughhousing as children. According to the Washington Post, they used to break furniture, throw snowballs at the guards, and even once carved a baseball diamond into the front lawn without permission. Quentin was a rebel with a heart of gold, though, and once brought a pony up to the second floor floor of the White House in the elevator to try and cheer up his sick brother Archie.
Known for his quick wit, Quentin once responded to a reporter trying to goad him for information about his father with "I see him occasionally, but I know nothing of his family life." But far from being an estranged bother to the old man, it’s probably fair to say that Quentin was Teddy’s favorite child. And Quentin, for his part, respected his father’s considerable roughhousing abilities enough to offer him a spot in the White House Gang, which Teddy gladly accepted. Tragically, Quentin joined the Air Corps and died at the age of 20, and Teddy was never the same.
Patti Davis, the black sheep of the Reagan family
Most people who rebel against their parents keep things fairly tame. They might take up smoking, or maybe wear an Iron Maiden hoodie to church. But if you’re Ronald Reagan’s child, you might feel like you’re in a go-big-or-go-home situation. Patti Davis went big.
As NBC tells it, Patti (28 at her father’s inauguration) was a liberal college dropout who made her opposition to some of her father’s policies very well known both during and after his presidency. She was most notably very active in the campaign against nuclear weapons, and even spoke at anti-nuclear rallies. According to the Washington Post, she once brought a prominent anti-nuclear activist to the White House to speak with her father. She didn’t let Nancy off the hook, either, and considered her anti-drug campaign in particular to be short-sighted. This dissidence opened up a rift between Patti and her parents, which only widened as she ramped the rebellion up to the next level in the ’90s. She was critical of both of her parents in a 1992 autobiography, both politically and much more personally, and in 1994 she appeared nude on the cover of Playboy.
She and her parents started to make amends shortly before Ronald’s death in 2004. She would pose nude again in 2011, this time for More magazine, but otherwise the rebellious former first daughter has cooled her jets somewhat and Reaganist conservatives around the country have been having significantly less heart attacks.
Barbara and Jenna Bush, underage drinkers and Secret Service dodgers
College kids partaking in underage drinking in the U.S. is typically about as scandalous as some mild jaywalking. But when you’re the child of a president, it doesn’t matter how awesome Chad’s kegger down the street is gonna be. The expectations are a little different. Still, teens will be teens, and being the president’s children wasn’t going to stop the Bush twins from indulging in some mild late-adolescent dissidence.
For the Bush twins, early 2001 was just one major buzzkill after another. In February, Jenna’s 18-year-old boyfriend was arrested for public drunkenness and had to be picked up from county jail by the Secret Service. In May, both Jenna and Barbara were caught trying to buy alcohol using a fake ID. And two weeks earlier, Jenna was arrested in a nightclub in Austin after being seen holding a bottle of beer. She was fined $51.25 for that one — or roughly a month’s worth of booze money, conservatively speaking — and sentenced to eight hours of community service and six hours of alcohol awareness classes. A bit much? Maybe, but the media had a field day with it, and for some reason decided to fixate on the toe ring Jenna wore to court. According to NBC San Diego, the twins were also said to have ditched the Secret Service on occasion in their more rebellious years which, again, understandable, teenagers and so forth. Even so, their mother’s press secretary dismissed any such claims as "nonsense."
John Adams II’s tragic downward spiral
Being the president’s child might come with a fair few challenges and complications in today’s world, but the early 19th century was a different beast entirely. Duel challenges were often a stubbed toe or a spilled drink away, alcoholism was rampant and poorly treated, and first cousins were marrying each other left right and center. Throw on the pressures of being the child of a distant but intensely demanding father who happens to be the frickin’ prez, and you have a John Adams II-shaped powder keg just waiting to blow.
As outlined in America’s Royalty: All the President’s Children, John Adams II (son of John Quincy Adams) was unsettled throughout his life. An underperforming academic, he was expelled from Harvard for participating in a student rebellion in 1823 and failed to make a name for himself in any other field afterward, at least not to the standard expected of him at the time. He ended up falling in love with and marrying Mary Hellen, who had been engaged to his brother George, and who happened to be his first cousin. The pairing was frowned upon within the family, and George (obviously) didn’t attend the wedding. John was put in charge of the family-owned gristmill but started drinking heavily and ran it into the ground. There was no happy ending here. Grim reality prevailed, his health deteriorated, and he died at the age of 31.
George W. Bush, notorious party animal
Before becoming president himself and making everyone forget about his youthful antics, George H.W. Bush’s eldest son made a name for himself as a hard-drinking party boy in his younger years. As the Washington Post tells it, Dubya had what he referred to as a "nomadic" period right after college, during which he partied, dated with abandon, and would sometimes go months without a job. He was an undeniable charmer, though, and might have been the kind of guy who’d drink you under the table, steal your girl, and still invite you to watch the ball game with him that weekend. More controversially, he signed up for pilot training with the National Guard in 1968, suspected by some as a way to avoid being drafted. Bush denied this.
Then, of course, came the Bush presidency, and with it the Iraq war, a brewing financial crisis, and plenty of other crises and missteps. These days he spends most of his time painting, and a lot less time dodging incoming shoe-missiles.
Ron Reagan, family feudster
President Reagan’s youngest son, Ron, wasn’t the biggest thorn in the family’s side when his father was in office — Patti had that one in the bag. But he definitely proved to be cut from the same cloth, and his own disruptive tendencies would eventually reveal themselves in a pretty big way, particularly after the old man had passed.
Like Patti, Ron had liberal views that were usually at odds with his father’s politics. But while he didn’t make the same kind of name for himself that his sister did during his dad’s presidency, he did become more outspoken as the years went on. Ultimately opting for a personal bombshell over a political one, he caused his biggest splash in 2011 when he dropped My Father at 100, a book about his life with the former president in which he claimed that the initial signs of Reagan’s Alzheimer’s were observable while he was still in office. As reported by ABC News, this didn’t sit well with his older brother, Michael, who said he was outraged over Ron’s comments. Taking it even further, he said Ron was an "embarrassment" to his father when he was alive and an embarrassment to his mother after writing that book. Ouch.
Ron’s troublemaking since then hasn’t been nearly as incendiary, but he has still taken opportunities to let his very non-Reaganist voice be heard, even promoting atheism in a 2014 TV spot.
John Payne Todd, James Madison’s adopted son and the bad boy of the White House
If there’s a standard bearer for just how badly things can go for a presidential child, John Payne Todd has to be in contention. The son of James Madison’s wife Dolley, John was 17 years old when they all moved into the White House for the beginning of his father’s term in 1802. He was a troublesome youth, and his mother soon sent him to Russia and then Europe on state business in an effort to straighten him out.
It had the opposite effect. When he returned, his bad habits and worst impulses had only been exacerbated after those lusty Europeans got their claws into him. He drank heavily, he gambled, he womanized like no one’s business, and he was in and out of prison for getting a little too gun-happy in public.
His father put him to work in a number of venues and positions in an attempt to settle him, but he didn’t seem to have much of an aptitude for anything. Much like John Adams II a few years later, Payne Todd’s life was a sad downward spiral, and one that lasted twice as long. After being crippled by gambling debts and drinking away the inheritance his mother had left him, he died a month after his 60th birthday. To his credit, he ensured his final act was a relatively noble one by freeing his slaves in his will.