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Welsh Presidents of the USA

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:51 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010

This September and early October will see a sudden and huge influx of American visitors to our shores, all here to support their team in the Ryder Cup series of golf matches against Europe.

It's the first time the Cup has been contested on Welsh soil but links between the USA and Wales are lengthier and far more considerable than many people know.

For example, five of the first six Presidents of the USA were of Welsh descent and the country has had no fewer than ten Welsh-connected Presidents in all - plus, briefly, the President of the Confederate States of America.

The Welshmen at the helm of the most powerful country in the world were:- John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Morrison Jnr, James Monroe, William Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Harrison, James A Garfield and Calvin Coolidge. The Confederate President was, of course, Jefferson Davis.

John Adams, the second ever President and the first one to reside in the White House, was able to trace his ancestry to the town of Pembroke in Pembrokeshire and to Penybanc Farm at Llanboidy in Carmarthenshire. The earliest reference to his family comes in 1422 when a distant ancestor, John Adams of Pembroke, married the daughter of Penybanc Farm and duly took over the business. David Adams, one of the later sons of Penybanc, was educated at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Carmarthen, took holy orders and in 1675 emigrated to America. Fifty years later his great grandson, the future President, was born.

John Adams' son, also called John, became the first and, for many years, the only son of a US President to also succeed to the Oval Office - a record that lasted until George W Bush succeeded his father a few years ago. John Quincy Adams became the sixth President in 1825.

Before that, however, there had been several other Presidents of Welsh descent. Amongthem was Thomas Jefferson who succeeded to the post in 1817. He was the main author and guiding light of the Declaration of Independence, a document that resonates with all the cadences and flowing poetry of the Welsh soul. His origins are a little unclear but Jefferson himself said that his father came from the foothills of Snowdon and in 1933 a US State Department official unveiled a plaque at Llanfair Ceiriog, the inscription reading "To the memory of a great Welshman, Thomas Jefferson."

The fifth President and yet another man of Welsh descent, James Monroe, was the official who conceived and implemented the Monroe Doctrine, a policy that declared that any attempt to colonise land on the continent of North America would be regarded as an act of war. Yet another Welsh connection came in the person of the ninth President, William Harrison who lasted just 32 days and became the first President to die in office. James Madison Jnr, the fourth President - who actually served two terms in office - was one of the Founding Fathers of the American nation and was the principal author of the US Constitution - another document that betrays its author's Welsh heritage in the style and quality of its composition.

Like Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, of course, also died in office, assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in April 1865. His Welsh lineage might be tentative and unclear but his surname comes from a fusion of Welsh and Latin, meaning "from the lake country."

Perhaps the most romantic of all the Welsh connected Presidents is Jefferson Davis who, after the succession of the southern states, was elected President of the Confederacy in February 1861. He had been Secretary of State for War and was a hero of the Indian Wars but had always viewed the southern states as a country within a country. The American Civil War was a long and bloody conflict, like all civil wars, and the eventual defeat of the southern states was inevitable.

Davis was captured two days after the surrender and was flung into prison where he was kept in irons for two years. His wife, a Welsh woman by the name of Varina Howell, campaigned tirelessly for his release and this was eventually granted. Jefferson Davis - named after Thomas Jefferson, one of the earliest Welsh Presidents - retired to New Orleans where he died, aged 82 years old.

Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson - the only two Presidents to actually sign the Declaration of Independence - died on exactly the same day. It was 4 July 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing.

Connections between Wales and the USA certainly go far deeper than many people, Welsh or American, expect. American visitors can expect a warm welcome when they come to Newport this autumn - everywhere except on the golf course at Celtic Manor.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Jefferson Davis fought to preserve slavery. I know there's a popular narrative that the secession was about "States' Right" but it was very specifically about the right to own slaves. If that's romantic I'd hate to get a Valentine's card from you Phil. ;)

  • Comment number 2.

    Of course, you're right Alun, I don't think the idea of slavery was anything like romantic. I guess I was thinking about the "Gone with the Wind" image - I always was a mug where sentimentality is concerned - and the idea of individual states deciding their own destiny. I just didn't express it very well. One of the other great American "folk lore" stories that often gets a little confused is the story of the Alamo. The Texicans (as they called themselves) might well have been fighting for freedom but they were also slave owners - the Mexican govt had outlawed the practice several years before.

  • Comment number 3.

    My great great grandfather was born in Wales, a couple of miles from Pulaski,..Wales Tennessee that is. Americans are Welsh, Scots, Irish, English,Finnish, Swedish, French,Dutch German... Jefferson Davis is not kin? I think, have to check that but Sarah Knox Taylor his first wife was, as her Dad US President Zachary Taylor was. Davis was an honest man, a Christian and while he served the Confederacy, he was not evil. Slavery died the death it was required to have, but while the Civil War was about slavery in large part, it was not all about it. A lot of it was the differences between the regions.
    Robert E Lee,and all the Lee's were part Welsh. Including Richard Henry Lee, who you might know as the Lee who said, "Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States. Our family is kin to your Queen counts relation like Henry VII, the Stewarts, Robert The Bruce (18 great grandfather) and Edward 1,(the Hammer of the Scots), Drake and Hawkins. We come of good family and Jeff Davis may or may not be blood kin, but he restored the line at Buena Vista with the Miss Rifles and we also come from Glamorgan. Sam Houston called him colder than a snake.

    Americans fought for evething you hold dear and things you hate. When you need somebody to guard your back, kin of George Washington, Robert E Lee, George Rogers Clark (Wobi Manitou)and many others,are here in America. From the Shadow of Mount Rainier

  • Comment number 4.

    Please tell me what battles Jefferson Davis fought in to preserve slavery. Or do you just make things up as you go?

  • Comment number 5.

    A message to Charles. Nobody said Jefferson Davis actually fought in battle, with sword or gun, to preserve slavery. Alun's comment was that Davis "fought to preserve salvery," a different thing altogether. There are more ways of fighting than appearing on the battlefront. And why do people have to be so unpleasant when they make comments? A little civility never hurt anyone.

  • Comment number 6.

    Saying Jefferson Davis fought anything is like saying that Obama is fighting the War on Terror. Davis did’nt fight anyone, he was probably as clueless about fighting as Obama is clueless on the War on Terror. Nither man has or had an idea about how to fight a war! Look, one lost a war and the other is losing/surrendering a war.


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