How Dynasties Shaped American Politics

Hal Gordon




Average voter turnout in the 2014 elections is reported to be the lowest since World War II. There are doubtless many reasons for this poor showing, but I’m going to suggest a provocative one: namely, that the American people aren’t voting because they are coming to accept the dynastic principle when it come to filling public offices.


For a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal, this country has produced a remarkable number of political dynasties. John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, was the son of second president John Adams. Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president, was the grandson of ninth president William Henry Harrison. And, of course, President George W. Bush, our 43rd president, is the son of George H.W. Bush, our 41st president.


And let’s not forget the Kennedys: John Kennedy was president, brother Bobby was attorney general and candidate for president, and Teddy Kennedy was a senator and candidate for president before he took that wrong turn off Chappaquiddick bridge. Bobby’s daughter Kathleen was lieutenant governor of Maryland and later an unsuccessful candidate for governor. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt’s irrepressible, sharp-tongued daughter, once said of the Kennedys that the world had not seen a family like them since the Bonapartes.


Alice was in no position to make wisecracks about ruling families. She belonged to one herself. Her father and Franklin Roosevelt were distant cousins. Not only that, Teddy was the uncle of Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR’s wife.


The Taft family of Ohio produced a president — William Howard Taft, who served as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court after he left the White House – and also three senators, two representatives and a lieutenant governor. The Frelinghuysens of New Jersey have served in either the House or Senate for six generations. Other families with long record in office include the Chafees of Rhode Island and the Bayhs of Indiana.


More recently, Andrew Cuomo succeeded his father as governor of New York. Rep. John Sarbanes, who represents Maryland’s third district in Congress, is the son of former senator Paul Sarbanes. The elder Sarbanes represented the third district himself between 1971 and 1977.


Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution once calculated that about 700 U.S. families had sent two or more members to Congress. According to him, political dynasties “are all over the place.”


University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato seconded Hess. “What has happened to the American republic?” he exclaimed. “How does it differ from a banana republic where a couple of dominant families often run everything for generations?


Fortunately, the dynastic principle is not absolute. It suffered at least two setbacks in the last elections. Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, was decisively beaten in her own campaign for senator from that state. Also, Jason Carter, grandson of former president and former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, failed in his own gubernatorial bid.



But these would appear to be the exceptions. In Connecticut, Teddy Kennedy Jr., son of the late Massachusetts senator, won a seat in the Connecticut state senate. In Texas, George P. Bush– nephew of President George W. Bush, grandson of President George H.W. Bush, and son of former Florida governor Jeb Bush–was elected state land commissioner by a whopping 60 percent of the vote.


Meanwhile, George P.’s father Jeb is a possible presidential candidate in 2016, as is former first lady Hilary Clinton.


Where will it all end?


In medieval England, the rival houses of York and Lancaster claimed the crown, touching off more than thirty years of bloody civil war. The succession was finally settled when the last Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, killed the last Yorkist king, Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Henry then cemented the peace by marrying a Yorkist princess, uniting the two houses. If Chelsea Clinton and George P. Bush were not already married to other spouses, the nation’s power brokers could arrange a marriage of convenience between the two and eliminate the need for future presidential elections altogether.


Maybe the voters who stayed at home on election day were the smart ones.


Author Bio:


Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site:



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