Although the term may be new, dysfunctional families have been around – well – forever!
Founding father Ben Franklin had a wonderful relationship with his son, William, for the first 25 years of his life. The two worked on the Almanac, traveled, conducted scientific experiments and even fought off the Indians together.
By the time revolution fever began to spread throughout the colonies, William, a staunch Loyalist, had become the royal governor of New Jersey colony. He was as committed to king and country as his father, Ben Franklin, was to the revolution.
Once the Declaration of Independence was signed, Ben had his son arrested and imprisoned. Writer Michael Farquhar, in his book entitled “A Treasury of Great American Scandals,” describes the conditions under which he was held:
He was housed in a solitary cell with a floor covered in old straw matted from the waste of previous occupants. He was denied writing paper, clean clothes and bathing or even toilet facilities. Over a period of three years, William lost his hair, his teeth, his health, and his wife, who died.
William continued to oppose the revolution and was eventually exiled to Britain. After the war ended, William wrote his father a conciliatory letter and the two did meet once more before Ben left Britain for the last time. It was not truly a reconciliation; it was more a business meeting. Ben required William to sign off on some jointly owned real estate holdings in America. Once their business was completed, Ben boarded a ship without saying goodbye to his son.
George Washington’s mother would never be satisfied. According to Farquhar, “she begrudged him his successes because they kept him, and his money, away from home.”
History suggests that he took care of his mother very well financially, but it seems that she was difficult to please and nothing was ever enough for her.
It was said that “Mrs. Washington seemed to delight in humiliating him as publicly as possible.” In 1781, Ben Harrison, the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, notified Washington “of a movement in the House – in response to Mary Washington’s cries of poverty – to have the state come to her financial rescue.” He wrote a public statement to House officials defending himself.
Shortly after the war had ended, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. It was said that Washington extended a very “tepid” invitation for her to move into Mount Vernon. He offered several reasons why she probably wouldn’t want to live there and in the end, she chose to remain in her home.
John Quincy Adams, son of the second president of the United States, was the sixth president of the United States. He was obviously a driven man. His youngest son, Charles, led an accomplished life which pleased his father. Much to Adams’ dismay, however, his two oldest sons, George and John, were very ordinary. Their lives were a constant stream of disappointments to him. He told his boys that:
The blast of mediocrity was demeaning the family name. He forbade them to come home (from college) until their class standings improved, letting them know unequivocally they were in disgrace because of the “mortification” they brought him, “mingled with disgust.” He warned, “I would feel nothing but sorrow and shame in your presence.”
If only his sons would rank in the top six of their class, which he later expanded to the top ten students of their class, everything would be okay.
After George graduated from college, he moved from one failure to the next which disappointed his father tremendously. In a letter to his son, Adams asked, “Do you not know how much of the comfort of my future life depends upon your conduct?
George fell into a serious depression.
As his presidential term came to an end in 1829, Adams wrote his son telling him that he would be
returning home to take total control over his lost son’s life. George, dreading the prospect, particularly as he realized that his parents would discover and condemn the illegitimate child he had conceived with a servant, flung himself into Long Island Sound and drowned.