6 Important Adoptees in American History

It’s that time of year — families across the country are gearing up to celebrate the Fourth of July with pool parties, barbecues, parades, carnivals and, of course, fireworks. This holiday is a chance for all of us to celebrate the culture and freedoms that exist in the United States today, as well as an opportunity to look back at the history and people who got us here.

But did you know that some of those people were actually touched by adoption?

It’s true. As we approach Independence Day, take time to learn about some of the famous figures in American history whose lives were shaped by their adoption stories.

As you’re reading, though, it’s important to keep in mind that adoption has not always been what it is today (in fact, it has changed dramatically through the course of history). Many of these historical and political figures weren’t officially “adopted” in the sense that we now understand adoption. Still, it’s hard to argue that these individuals did not have an impact on U.S. history — and their upbringings with adoptive parents likely had an impact on who they were and the things they went on to accomplish.

1. John Hancock

July 4 is celebrated each year in commemoration of the Declaration of Independence — and John Hancock is widely credited as being the first to sign the famous document. What many people don’t know, however, is that the founding father was actually raised in an adoptive household.

Born in colonial Massachusetts in 1737, Hancock was adopted and raised by his childless aunt and uncle after his father died and his mother was no longer able to care for him. He later inherited his uncle’s business and went on to become one of the most prominent political figures in the American Revolution.

2. Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln had an incredibly close bond with his mother. In fact, he told one relative that she “had been his best friend in this world” and that “no son could love a mother more than he loved her.”

But the 16th president wasn’t talking about the woman who gave birth to him. He was talking about Sarah Bush Johnston, the stepmother who raised him after his “angel mother,” Nancy Lincoln, passed away when he was 9 years old. While Johnston may not have formally adopted Lincoln, she did encourage his intellectual development, providing him with books to read and encouraging him to practice writing and public speaking. Lincoln’s (adoptive) mother’s influence arguably shaped who he became — and, in turn, potentially helped to shape the history of our country.

3. Eleanor Roosevelt

With deep involvement in a variety of human rights and social justice movements, Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most powerful women of her time. Serving as the First Lady of the United States during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency (1933–1945), she revolutionized the role, using it as a platform to become an active political force.

But before Roosevelt grew up to become a political powerhouse, she suffered unthinkable loss in her childhood; her mother died when she was 8, and her father died just two years later. She and her brother were adopted and raised by their grandmother.

4. Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford, 38th president of the United States, would not have been Gerald Ford without adoption. Born Leslie Lynch King, Jr. in 1913, Ford’s parents separated when he was a baby. His mother remarried when he was 2 years old, and he was adopted by and renamed for his stepfather, Gerald R. Ford, Sr.

Ford didn’t learn of his adoption until he was older, but he said the revelation “didn’t make a big impression” on him. “I didn’t understand exactly what a stepfather was,” he said. “Dad and I had the closest, most intimate relationship. We acted alike. We had the same interests. I thought we looked alike.”

Ford called his adoptive father a “magnificent person.”

“I couldn’t have written a better prescription for a superb family upbringing,” he said of his childhood.

5. Nancy Reagan

Nancy Reagan was another influential First Lady, best known for her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. As a small child, Reagan’s parents divorced, and she lived with an aunt and uncle for a time before her mother remarried and she was adopted by her new stepfather at the age of 6.

Fun fact: Nancy’s husband, President Ronald Reagan, was also an adoptive father, having adopted his son Michael with his first wife long before his presidency. In fact, the president was so passionate about adoption, he declared the first National Adoption Awareness Week in 1984.

6. Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States, was actually born William Jefferson Blythe III. His father was killed in a car accident just months before he was born and, unable to financially provide for him, his mother moved to Louisiana to attend nursing school. During that time, she left her son in the care of his grandparents but returned for him four years later. She married Roger Clinton, Sr. in 1950, and Bill officially adopted his stepfather’s surname as a teen.

Clinton was a known advocate for adoption during his time in office, expanding National Adoption Awareness Week to the entire month of November. In one famous quote, the former president said, “We must work tirelessly to make sure that every boy and girl in America who is up for adoption has a family waiting to reach him or her. This is a season of miracles, and perhaps there is no greater miracle than finding a loving home for a child who needs one.”

These are just a few of the many influential people who have been touched by adoption. In addition to these founding fathers, first ladies and U.S. presidents, there are many other senators, representatives, judges, celebrities and everyday people who have made their mark on our country’s history and culture as adoptees, birth parents or adoptive parents. This Fourth of July, join us in celebrating the small — but not insignificant — role adoption has played in American history!

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