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The People’s Dukes

December 2023
3min read

The Constitution could not be more specific: “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States.” Yet, in the nearly two centuries since these words were written, the American people, despite official disapproval, have chosen a political elite resembling a nobility in everything but name. And it is far more than a matter of a few Roosevelts and Adamses.

Twenty-two families—among them the Bayards (below), the Muhlenbergs, and the Washburns (next page)—have sent four or more sons to Congress. An astonishing total of 700 families have sent two or more, accounting for nearly 1,700 of the 10,000 men and women elected to the federal legislature since 1774. Currently, seventeen United States senators are in some manner connected with dynasties.

Who are these “people’s dukes,” as Stewart Alsop calls them?

Most frequently, as the March Hare said, they are the “best butter”: old stock, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, professional, eastern seaboard, well-to-do. Vet, as the Kennedys have dramatically illustrated, being Celtic or Catholic is hardly disqualifying. And only a half-century ago the Longs of Louisiana were poor dirt farmers; today their ancestry includes two governors, three senators, and three congressmen. (The Long family is examined at greater length in the accompanying article.)

The wealth of most political dynasties, as might be expected of old families, generally has come from the land. First they planted it; later they sold it. Rarely, however, have the dynasties been immensely wealthy. Since a high birth rate has been a dynastic characteristic, their money has often been dissipated through dispersion. As for the Very Rich, there have been no Astors, Vanderbilts, or Goulds in Congress (although lately a profusion of Rockefellers have entered public life). Yet if office-holding was beneath the ken of Ward McAllister’s “Four Hundred,” great fortunes have not been averse to having their daughters marry politicians, thus suggesting the second major source of dynastic income.

At least five major political clans can trace the bulk of their wealth directly to advantageous marriages. The correspondence of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams is filled with tales of money miseries; then the latter’s son Charles Francis married the daughter of Boston’s first millionaire, and later Adamses began to write about the debilitating effect of having money!

Any Almanack de Gotha of America’s political nobility would also have to note the frequency of inter-dynasty marriages—the cross-fertilization of Roosevelts and Livingstons, Livingstons and Lees, Bayards and Livingstons, Bayards and Carrolls, Carrolls and Lees, Lodges and Frelinghuysens. One writer claims that Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were hereditarily joined to ten other presidents of the United States.

What has made some families, generation after generation, run for political office?

Certain traits are generally found in politicians—no matter what their fathers’ professions—for example, ambition, gregariousness, energy, tenacity, often a physical attractiveness. Given a “political personality,” a man may be attracted to public life and the public may be attracted to him. But can .juch characteristics be inherited? Will a political personality, through genes and chromosomes, produce another political personality? Recent studies agree that while personality traits are not inherited in an absolute sense, certain potentials are inherited. This perhaps is what Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes meant when he said that a child’s education begins 250 years before it is born.

Thus a dynasty may start with an inherited tendency , at which point environment comes into play. Young John Quincy Adams eavesdrops on his father’s conversations with Thomas Jefferson; young Charles Francis Adams eavesdrops on John Quincy Adams’ conversations with Henry Clay; young Henry Adams eavesdrops on Charles Francis Adams’ conversations with William Seward. This can be an intoxicating brew.

Many dynasties are founded, or greatly reinforced, by one dominant personality. The first politician, the political paterfamilias, whether John Adams or Joseph P. Kennedy or Alphonso Taft, instills in his young a sense of duty to family. The tribal sense, or dynastic instinct, is often what initially distinguishes the Kennedys and Adamses from their less motivated contemporaries.

Unlike a young Du Pont, however, a young Roosevelt or Lodge has no business that he automatically inherits. Father served at the will of the people, and he must submit himself to that same will. Yet his legacy is far from worthless. It consists of two priceless commodities: Connections, and a Brand Name. While these are not keys to the White House, they can if skillfully applied open the door to the state legislature or even to Congress. When young Adlai E. Stevenson III ran for the Illinois House of Representatives in 1964 he finished first among 236 candidates; first among the Republican contenders was Earl Eisenhower, brother of the man who had twice defeated young Stevenson’s father for the Presidency. Neither candidate had ever sought elective office before.

But dynasties in a democracy could not exist by name alone. Jefferson felt that there was a natural aristocracy among men, the bases of which were “virtue and talents.” While political virtue is a prickly nettle to grasp, America’s “royal families” have generally earned high marks for talent. They have produced opportunists, mediocrities, and coattail-riders, of course; but, by and large, they have been exceptionally able. The American experience would have been far poorer without them.

S.H.

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