Who Was Joseph R. Biden, Sr., Joe Biden's Father?

Biden Sr. lived a life filled with challenges to overcome.

Joe Biden
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Current presidential hopeful and former Vice President Joe Biden Jr. often mentions in interviews how profound his family's influence has been on him. This is especially true of his father, after whom he's named: Joseph R. Biden Sr., who passed away in 2002. Born in Baltimore and raised in Wilmington, DE, Biden Sr. lived a life filled with challenges, including a period of poverty with his young family.

Biden Jr. frequently mentions his father while he's on the campaign trail, including the quote that has informed his life: "My dad always said, 'Champ, the measure of a man is not how often he is knocked down, but how quickly he gets up.'" It's become an important part of Biden's campaign, both as VP to President Barack Obama and now in 2020.

Joseph Biden Sr. fell on hard times after World War II.

Biden Sr. was initially wealthy, "sailing yachts off the New England coast, riding to the hounds, driving fast cars, flying airplanes." In 1941, Biden Sr. married Jean (maiden name Finnegan) from Scranton, PA. Biden Jr. was the oldest of four and portrays their time in Scranton as idyllic. Biden Sr. worked for a company that made sealant for merchant marine ships during World War II, but had difficulty finding work in the decades that followed.

As a result, the family went through financial difficulties. For a time, the children even went to live with their maternal grandparents. The family ended up moving to a suburb of Wilmington, and Biden Sr. worked initially selling used cars.

That didn't stop his children from experiencing some luxuries and having fun. His sister Valerie Biden Owens said she always had nice dresses for school dances. The only difference was that her parents bought them on layaway.

Their father extended the same comforts to his oldest son. When Biden Jr. was a student at the University of Delaware, attendees weren't permitted to have cars on campus. You could say some rules were to be broken, as Biden Sr. continually loaned vehicles for weekend excursions to his struggling college student kid.

An old classmate from college recalled the not-so-legal exchange to The New York Timessaying, "Every weekend, somehow, Joe ended up with a car. It was always a convertible. Besides being very cool and dressing right, showing up in a convertible he had us all beat eight ways from Sunday."

Biden Sr.'s influence on his son was profound.

Biden Jr. recounted a story about his father quitting a job that he felt morally opposed to:

"In his autobiography, he tells the story of his father quitting a job as sales manager for an auto dealership because the owner, who liked to reward his employees and customers with silver dollars, decided to amuse himself at the dealership’s Christmas party by spilling out a bucket of silver dollars on the dance floor to watch his workers scramble to scoop up the coins."

Biden Jr. explained that he learned that a job could embody both dignity and respect, instead of simply being a paycheck. In fact, when Biden Jr. became a senator (and after the tragic deaths of his first wife and daughter), “[Biden Sr.] gave up car sales and went into real estate,” according to Biden's younger sister Valerie Biden Owens. “He didn’t want a United States senator to have a used-car salesman for a dad.”

Biden Sr. cared deeply about his son's campaign efforts. He appeared on stage at many rallies alongside his son and went door-to-door for him. His father was so involved some citizens mistook Biden Sr. as the candidate since Biden Jr. was so young compared to the competition. The pair soon started wearing buttons to signify who was who that read, "I'm Joe Biden Sr." and "I'm Joe Biden U.S. Senator."

Biden Jr. also saw the impacts of alcohol on his family: Biden Sr., drank, and his mother's family had issues with alcohol. His brother Frankie and son Hunter have also dealt with addiction. "There are enough alcoholics in my family," Biden Jr. said in 2008, of why he doesn't drink at all.

Biden Sr. passed away in 2002.

Biden Sr. was a longstanding advocate of his son. In 1972, when Biden was 30 years old, Sr. even "appeared onstage at rallies with his son and went door-to-door for him. With his senatorial bearing and his creased suits, many voters mistook him for the candidate, who looked barely old enough to vote."

His obituary appeared in The Baltimore Sun, and noted that Biden Sr. had been in declining health in weeks prior to his death but wasn't specific about the cause. He died in Wilmington at Biden Jr.'s home. His wife passed away eight years later in 2010.

And it's obvious that Biden Jr's father is still on his mind. In 2020, Biden Jr. wished his father a happy Father's Day, saying, "As my father believed, there’s no higher calling for a woman or a man than to be a good mother or a good father."

Katherine J. Igoe
Contributing Editor

Katherine’s a contributing syndications editor at Marie Claire who covers fashion, culture, and lifestyle. In her role, she writes stories that are syndicated by MSN and other outlets. She’s been a full-time freelancer for over a decade and has had roles with Cosmopolitan (where she covered lifestyle, culture, and fashion SEO content) and Bustle (where she was their movies and culture writer). She has bylines in New York TimesParentsInStyle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. Her work has also been syndicated by ELLEHarper’s BazaarSeventeenGood Housekeeping, and Women’s Health, among others. In addition to her stories reaching millions of readers, content she's written and edited has qualified for a Bell Ringer Award and received a Communicator Award. 

Katherine has a BA in English and art history from the University of Notre Dame and an MA in art business from the Sotheby's Institute of Art (with a focus on marketing/communications). She covers a wide breadth of topics: she's written about how to find the very best petite jeanshow sustainable travel has found its footing on Instagram, and what it's like to be a professional advice-giver in the modern world. Her personal essays have run the gamut from learning to dress as a queer woman to navigating food allergies as a mom. She also has deep knowledge of SEO/EATT, affiliate revenue, commerce, and social media; she regularly edits the work of other writers. She speaks at writing-related events and podcasts about freelancing and journalism, mentors students and other new writers, and consults on coursework. Currently, Katherine lives in Boston with her husband and two kids, and you can follow her on Instagram. If you're wondering about her last name, it’s “I go to dinner,” not “Her huge ego,” but she responds to both.