It’s All in the Family

by Caroline

“Let’s be honest here, the presidency is not some crown to be passed between two families.” – Gov. Martin O’Malley, May 30, 2015

When you visit Arlington National Cemetery, you’re also visiting the estate of Robert E. Lee, top general of the Confederacy. The museum there spends a lot of time describing how Lee came into possession of this land through his wife Mary Anna, the great-granddaughter of George and Martha Washington. After Mary Anna died, her son inherited the land. His name, if you can believe it, was George Washington Custis Lee, establishing to anyone around that he was Extremely Important, a man of three top American lineages.

Now hang on for this ride. Mary Anna, great-granddaughter of the Washingtons, married to Robert E. Lee, was also the great-granddaughter of William Fitzhugh, a major player in the Continental Congress which established this country, and a descendant of Charles Calvert, the first guy who inherited the British title to the state of Maryland. And if she hadn’t married Lee, she probably would have married Sam Houston, the guy who made Texas a state (thanks, like, so so much). To be fair, America is basically the size of a cul-de-sac at this point, so your options for suitors are a little limited. And this family tree got started when America was still pretty much Britain, so maybe they didn’t get the memo that we’re not about that royal descendant life here.

But:

Fast forward to 1850. We’re 11 years away from the start of the Civil War, and Zachary Taylor is president. He knows Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy, because Davis is his son-in-law.

The Confederate army, then, was led by Lee, who married into our first president’s family; and by Davis, who married into our twelfth president’s family. And that was the leadership of the rebels.

This isn’t just a curious genealogical twist. American political history is littered with influential family ties and strategic marriages.

For every shackle of tyranny that our patriotic forefathers shook off their overtaxed shoulders, cursing the royal bloodline and praising American ideals of equal opportunity, it seems they redistributed that power in a rather small, tightly-connected group…related by blood or marriage to themselves. Ever heard of Paul Revere Lincoln? Or the Quincy Adamses? Or the Taft paternal line, where father-son-grandson served as Attorney General-President-Senator?

Or, you know, The Clinton Machine. Or the Kennedy Dynasty. Or the Bush Era.

As Brendan Nyhan wrote in the New York Times just last year, “Maybe it’s time for Americans to admit that we like the familiar faces and names of politicians from famous families.”

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Political leadership in America is a family business, as true to our national identity as the idea that anyone can come here, start from nothing, and make something of himself.

To be sure, the “self-made man” idea has its protagonists: Andrew Jackson was an orphan, Ben Franklin was the son of a candlemaker, and Harry Reid grew up in a poor, abandoned mining town with an alcoholic father who had an elementary education. But just as “anyone” can access success and power in America, so can “anyone” retain the right to hoard it amongst his closest family and friends.

John D. Rockefeller, for example, had an absentee father and had to forge his own path in business. But while John’s son, John II, stayed in banking, his grandson (inexplicably named Nelson) served four terms as Governor of New York. Nelson’s son, John IV, is a U.S. Senator in West Virginia.

Many nations and industries take pride in the presence of family business. And, hello, as a blog run by three sisters, we’re no stranger to that. There’s plenty of value in family ties, and they make sense in business and trade.

But maybe we should remember that alongside the pervasive narrative that America is a land of equal opportunity runs an equally true notion: that often the lives of the politically powerful are more intertwined than they appear, that they build upon generations of accumulated influence and authority, and that this has been going on since we first declared ourselves to be A More Perfect Union.

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