Two Legitimate First-Generation Presidential Candidates For the First Time in History: Obama & Romney

Obama and Romney: the Candidates’ Foreign-Born Fathers.

They’re both long gone but the fathers of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have unwittingly created an unprecedented aspect to the 2012 presidential election.

For the first time in American History, both major party candidates are legitimate first-generation Americans.

A unique commanlity.

A unique commonality.

Unlike the majority of “first-generation” Americans, the candidates didn’t have fathers who followed the familiar pattern of immigrants, leaving their native land for the United States to settle here to become citizens.

Barack Obama, Sr. and his mother, the President’s paternal grandmother.

The President’s father was born on June 18, 1936 in Rachuonyo, near Lake Victoria, in Kenya when it was still a British colony.

His parents, the President’s paternal grandparents were Onyango (1895-1979) and Habiba Akumu,  and were Roman Catholics.

His parents’ marriage ended when Barack, Sr. was nine years old, and he was later raised by his stepmother Sarah. The grandfather was a worldly man, having enlisted in the British colonial army and traveling through Europe, India and Africa. When the British learned that Onyango Obama was involved in the Kenyan independence movement, however, he was imprisoned in 1949 for six months and subject to tortures which left him with permanent disabilities.

The President never met his grandfather, who died in 1979, before his grandson first visited Kenya several years later.

The President with his step-grandmother Sarah Obama.

It was during a trip to Zanzibar, that the President’s grandfather converted from Catholicism to Islam. In contrast, the President’s father, Barack Obama, Sr. converted from Islam back to Christianity, becoming an Anglican as a young student in missionary schools. In 1954, he married his first wife, Kezia, in a tribal ceremony and they had a son and daughter. Five years later, he won a scholarship to study economics in the U.S. and student stipends of the program were underwritten by the family of John F. Kennedy, who would be elected President the following year.

Barack Obama, Sr.

Enrolling at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1959, a year later he began dating Ann Dunham after they met in a Russian language class. They married in Wailuku on the island Maui in February of 1961 and the future President was born seven months later. Barack Obama, Sr. told his new wife that he was divorced from his first wife, which was untrue.

The President’s father during his time studying at Harvard.

A month later, the new Mrs. Obama took her baby and returned to Seattle, to continue her education at the University of Washington until June of 1962. That same month, her husband earned his University of Hawaii bachelor’s degree in economics, within three years and began a Harvard University graduate fellowship program in economics, earning a master’s degree.

The couple didn’t see each other again while married; Ann Dunham filed for divorce in January of 1964 and Barack Obama, Sr. returned to Kenya in August of 1964, where he was employed as an oil company executive and then a government economist. He made one return trip to the United States, in December of 1971, to see his ex-wife and son, the future President recalling of the visit:

The Obama father and son on the last day of the only month they ever spent together, when the former made a trip to see the latter

I only remember my father for one month my whole life, when I was 10. And it wasn’t until much later in life that I realized, like, he gave me my first basketball and it was shortly thereafter that I became this basketball fanatic. And he took me to my first jazz concert and it was sort of shortly thereafter that I became really interested in jazz and music. So what it makes you realize how much of an impact [even if it’s only a month] that they have on you.

Barack Obama, Sr. died in a car accident on November 24, 1982 in Nairobi. He holds a unique status among the President’s fathers: since he was in the United States on a temporary student visa, he was considered a “foreign national,” not an immigrant, since he never sought to remain as a citizen.  

Three other Presidents, Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan and Chester Arthur, had fathers who were born in Ireland (the mothers of Jefferson and Wilson were born in England, while Hoover’s was born in Canada).

Besides Obama, three other Presidents had foreign-born fathers: Jackson, Buchanan and Arthur.

As unprecedented as the status of the President’s father may be, that of his political opponent in this fall’s presidential election is equally so, for its own entirely unique fact of an American family which left the U.S. to immigrate to a foreign country, only to return a generation later.

Romney’s great-grandmother, born in Canada to Scottish immigrants, with his grandfather on her lap, was one of five wives to his great-grandfather and settled in Mexico.

Mitt Romney’s great-great-grandfather Miles Park Romney converted to Mormonism in their native England, then immigrated and settled in the Utah in the 1840s, where their son Miles Archibald was born. His wife Hannah Hill, born in Ontario, Canada and her Scottish immigrant parents all converted to Mormonism and moved to Utah, her father taking multiple wives. Miles and Hannah married in 1862, and had ten children, all born in Utah, including son Gaskell, who is the grandfather of Mitt Romney. In 1886, to escape arrest under the legal ban of polygamy four years earlier, Miles A. Romney took Hannah and his other wives and thirty children and immigrated to Mexico.

George Romney, fourth from left as a child, his father Gaskell at far right; George’s grandfather was the last Romney who was a polygamist.

Thus, it was in Colonia Dublán, Galeana, Chihuahua, Mexico, that Gaskell Romney married Anna Pratt (granddaughter of a German immigrant), and where their son George was born on 1907.

This George Romney is the father of the presidential candidate. 

Romney’s grandfather.

He was five years old when his father emigrated from Mexico back to the U.S. By then, the Mormon Church or the Church of Latter-Day Saints as it is called, had banned polygamy.

The families of the fathers of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, however, share one more extremely rare bit of heritage history among American families. The great-grandfathers of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had the exact same number of wives – five each.

Romney hugs his son Mitt after announcing his run for governor.

Making the potential outcome of the 2012’s presidential election even more unique would be if Romney is elected, making Ann Romney the First Lady. Her father was also an immigrant and her husband’s election would mark the first time in history that both a President and First Lady were first-generation Americans.



All the more interesting is this postscript provided by reader Brian Nix: in 1856 first-generation candidate James Buchanan ran against Republican candidate John Fremont – who was the illegitimate son of a French immigrant.

Categories: Barack Obama, History, Politics, Presidents, The Obamas

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2 replies »

  1. The 1856 Presidential Election: enter Democratic candidate James Buchanan (1791-1868), whose father James Buchanan, Sr., was born in Ireland, and emigrated in 1783. Enter Republican candidate (the first one!) John Charles Frémont (1813-1890). His mother Anne Beverley Whiting was from a well-to-do Virginia family, and married to another Virginian, John Pryor, who hired a French immigrant, Charles Fremon, to tutor his wife. After discovering they were having an affair, he tried to divorce her, but the Virginia House of Delegates refused his petition of divorce, and so Fremon and Anne fled in scandal, unable to marry, and had their illegitimate son John. So, in 1856 both candidates were first-generation Americans.

    • Dear Brian – How fantastic of you to detail this and share it – thank you very much. I will make a correction to the story clarifying that Obama and Romney running in 2012 represent the first time that two “legitimate” sons of immigrants ran against each other. Really interesting story – and one I did not know about Fremont. I wonder – was it widely reported during the 1856 campaign and, if so, what was the general reaction from the press and the public? Thanks again.


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