In American politics, "dynasty" is a dirty word. The Founding Fathers, after all, went on record as wholeheartedly objecting to power flowing through blood rather than ballot, declaring in the U.S. Constitution that "no title of nobility shall be granted by the United States." The narrative of one of the country's most prominent political families, the Kennedys, even avoids the dreaded d-word. Rather than referring to the New England clan as a dynasty, it's romantically painted as Camelot.
In reality, however, it took just about as much time for the ink to dry on the Declaration of Independence as it did for American politics to become another type of family business. In 1848, for example, more than 16 percent of congressional seats were filled by someone whose relative had previously held the position [source: Kieley]. Moreover, a 2006 study found that Congress members who serve more than one term have a 40 percent chance of someone in their family later ending up in Congress [source: Alexander]. That doesn't imply that these family trees are full of rotten apples, but they may cultivate relationships and connections that can help siblings, cousins and in-laws win elections as with any successful business operation.
The following American dynasties certainly understood how to pool their resources and convert their last names into impressive and long-lasting political brands.
Technically, political power should run through a family for at least three generations in order to qualify as a dynasty, but New York's Democratic Cuomos get a pass since patriarch Mario was a first-generation American [source: Hess]. Son of an immigrant Italian grocer, Mario Cuomo grew up in Queens and eventually became New York governor in 1983. His oldest son, Andrew, served as Gov. Cuomo's political director until the senior politician was defeated at the polls in 1994.
The experience likely came in handy when Andrew decided to run for governor like his father, especially considering he won his 2010 election. And speaking of dynasties, a few years prior in 2003, Andrew legally cut ties with the Kennedy dynasty when his marriage to Kerry Kennedy dissolved. The younger Cuomo eventually may supersede his dad's political legacy since he's considering making a run for the White House in 2016 [source: Hartmann]. And who leaked that possibility to the press? Doting dad Mario, naturally.
In December 2010, Richard M. Daley became Chicago's longest-serving mayor, having led the city since 1989. He claimed the title from his father, Richard J. Daley, who governed the Midwestern city from 1955 to his 1976 death [source: MSNBC]. Although there were a handful of mayors elected to office between the father and son, the Daleys ran Chicago for a total of 43 years, in many ways molding the Windy City into its modern, bustling status [source: Reiss]. Upon the younger Daley's announcement that he wouldn't seek reelection for a seventh term, news headlines hailed the "end of a dynasty."
The other Daley son, William M. Daley, is also instrumental in government. When former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel stepped down from the Obama administration to snag the Chicago mayoral seat vacated by Richard M. Daley, William headed to Washington, D.C., to take his place.
The Rockefellers didn't make their name in politics, but the vast fortune John D. Rockefeller amassed with his Standard Oil Company would help bankroll future family members' elections [source: Hess]. The elder Rockefeller, in fact, had no interest in politics, and his only son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., was far more interested in investing wealth back into society rather than influencing people through political office. Nevertheless, Rockefeller's marriage to Abby Aldrich, daughter of a Rhode Island senator, was portrayed as a politically savvy union.
John and Abby's son, Nelson Rockefeller, shared a birthday with his prestigious grandfather and appeared to have inherited his ambition from an early age [source: PBS]. In 1959, Nelson Rockefeller became the Republican governor of New York following a characteristically well-funded campaign. He would never reach his goal of climbing his way to the Oval Office, however. In 1974, following the resignation of President Nixon, Gerald Ford appointed Rockefeller his vice president but abandoned Rockefeller when reelection rolled around.
Great-grandson Jay Rockefeller served two terms as governor of West Virginia. After that, he was elected to the U.S. Senate and, as of 2012, has been reelected four times.
Just because political ambition runs in a family doesn't mean those expected to campaign necessarily share common dreams of electoral glory. Such was the case for President William Howard Taft, who came from a prominent Cincinnati family and later referred to his 1908 White House race as "one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life" [source: Beschloss and Sidey]. The portly lawyer-turned-president served one term, lost reelection and was later appointed Chief Justice of the United States by President Harding in 1920.
Unlike his reluctantly political father, Robert A. Taft was far more intent on reaching the Oval Office. The Ohio leader served as a U.S. senator and unsuccessfully put his name in the hat for the Republican nomination for president three separate times [source: U.S. Senate]. Years later, third-generation Robert Taft Jr. also won a seat in the Ohio state legislature before moving on to Congress. Most recently in 2005, however, former Ohio Governor Bob Taft -- great-grandson of William Howard and son of Robert Taft Jr. -- sullied the family reputation when he was criminally charged with failing to report gifts and paid outings he received in office [source: Cole].
In 1720, evangelist Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen arrived in colonial New Jersey from Germany, and his family would remain in the eventual Garden State for generations to come. The Frelinghuysen clan first became involved in U.S. politics way back in 1793 when Theordorus' grandson Frederick won a Senate seat after leading American troops in the Revolutionary War and serving in the 1779 Continental Congress [source: Brown]. Since then, seven generations of Frelinghuysens have represented New Jersey on the state and federal level [source: Kitchin]. The late Peter Frelinghuysen, for instance, completed 11 terms as a U.S. Congressman, legislating from 1953 to 1975; son Rodney Frelinghuysen has represented the same congressional district as his father since 1995.
Although the Frelinghuysen line may not roll off the tongue or attract as much nationwide prestige as the Bushes and Clintons, it's certainly carries a cachet at home. Schools, streets, a township and multiple buildings around the state are named after the original New Jersey natives [source: Kitchin].
Like the Frelinghuysens of New Jersey, the Harrison family got its start in American politics during the nation's infancy. The first Harrison served in Congress in 1793, and six more would go on to claim seats in a total 20 congressional sessions [source: Bó, Bó and Snyder]. The Harrisons also enjoy the rare distinction of sending not one, but two, of its bloodline to the White House. Former Virginia Governor William Henry Harrison became the ninth U.S. president in 1841, but his tenure lasted only 32 days since he died from a cold that developed into fatal pneumonia.
After working as an Indiana senator, grandson Benjamin Harrison beat out incumbent Grover Cleveland in 1888. Known as "Little Ben" for his short stature, the second Harrison presidency only lasted a single term, due in large part to a third-party challenge from Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party. In the race for reelection, the formerly defeated Democrat Grover Cleveland came back around and reclaimed victory in 1892 [source: Beschloss and Sidey].
Many political dynasties travel through immediate families, often flowing from father to son to grandson, or from husband to wife. The Roosevelt connection was much more diluted but nevertheless pivotal in the nation's history. In 1900, Theodore Roosevelt won the vice presidency on William McKinley's presidential ticket, and took over executive reins himself when McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in September 1901 [source: Miller]. Stepping down from office in 1909, Roosevelt got the political itch once again and fruitlessly ran once more in 1912 on the third party Progressive ticket nicknamed the Bull Moose Party.
Meanwhile, Theodore Roosevelt's niece Eleanor married his fifth cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1905. After a term as governor of New York, FDR became president in 1932 and would return to office three more times, longer than anyone else in American history. Not long into his fourth term, FDR died, leaving some to speculate that Eleanor Roosevelt would pick up the political torch, but she declined the Democratic nomination for Senate [source: Hess]. Two of the Roosevelt sons, James and Frank, later were elected to Congress representing California and New York, respectively, but their political careers wouldn't progress beyond the House of Representatives.
The Adams have been called "America's first dynasty," although the family's political heft would peak and fade out prior to the 20th century. Founding Father John Adams worked his way up from a humble upbringing and deftly wheeled and dealt with France and England at the close of the tumultuous American Revolution. But John Adams' vice presidency was considered a lackluster affair, second only to his single term as president [source: Shesol].
The New England family had a chance to burnish its presidential legacy when the oldest son, John Quincy Adams, took office in 1825. But he seemed to have inherited his dad's poor leadership skills, and the sixth president's performance was considered as bad as that of the second. Afterward, however, the younger Adams served admirably in Congress as a staunch abolitionist [source: Shesol]. Great-great-grandson Charles Francis Adams III marked the last in the family line to pursue public office, eventually being selected by President Herbert Hoover for Secretary of the Navy [source: Hess].
Initially, John F. Kennedy wasn't supposed to be the son destined to become President. Wealthy financier Joseph P. Kennedy had planned to bankroll the future campaign of Joe Kennedy, the oldest of his four boys, but those patriarchal designs were dashed when the 29-year-old pilot was killed in a plane crash over the English Channel [source: Reuters]. In the face of that tragedy, the political buck was passed down to the next-oldest son, John, leaving U.S. Attorney General for Robert and a Massachusetts Senate seat for the youngest, Edward [source: Romano].
With the help of the Kennedy fortune, John and Robert both fulfilled their father's dream but didn't survive long enough to complete their legendary role. John was assassinated in 1963 while president, and Robert was assassinated in 1968 while seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Edward Kennedy unsuccessfully challenged Jimmy Carter for the Democratic ticket in 1980. Spending the rest of his career in the U.S. Senate, the so-called "Liberal Lion" nevertheless carved out a Congressional record as one of its most influential members and its fourth-longest serving legislator (1962 to 2009) [source: U.S. Senate].
In 2011, when Edward Kennedy's son Patrick retired from his post as a U.S. Representative of Rhode Island, it signaled the end -- or at least a distinct lull -- of the Kennedy political dynasty. For the first time since 1947, no Kennedy went to work in the U.S. Capitol.
Americans may not romanticize the Bush family in the same legendary manner ascribed to the Kennedys, but they arguably are the most successful political dynasty of the 20th century. In 1952, Prescott Bush was voted in as a senator from Connecticut, and his son, George H.W. Bush moved down to Texas and followed in his father's footsteps winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives [source: Beschloss and Sidey]. In 1980, newly elected President Ronald Reagan kicked off the first of two terms with Bush as his vice president. Boosted by the popularity of the Reagan administration, Republican Bush succeeded the former Commander-in-Chief in 1988, but lost to Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992. Meanwhile, Prescott's grandsons George W. and Jeb were paving their own political inroads toward becoming governors of Texas and Florida, respectively.
In 2000, in a historically close election that hinged on fewer than 600 votes in Florida, George W. Bush reignited the dynasty with his narrow victory. When George W. Bush reached his term limit in 2008, he and his father had occupied the first or second most powerful positions in the U.S. government for 20 out of the previous 28 years. Some suspected that younger brother Jeb might court the 2008 Republican nomination, but he demurred. And with the 2016 elections and beyond already looming on the horizon, another family member has surfaced as someone to keep an eye on: George P. Bush, Jeb's son who reportedly has been groomed for the political stage from a young age [source: Ball].
Historically, presidential elections have been fraught with strange twists. Learn about 10 bizarre moments in presidential elections at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: Top 10 American Political Dynasties
As much as America adheres to a no-royalty policy, it's mighty interesting to notice just how much power has tended to run in families (not to mention the stateside excitement with William and Kate's royal wedding, but that's another article). From the get-go in the United States, politics has been treated like another business enterprise in many ways, and from that perspective it makes sense that certain families would take to it and build their empires. Just as the retail industry has the Walton family, for instance, Republican politics has the Bush family. Political dynasties also tend to follow common patterns of staking out a geographical area (Massachusetts for the Kennedys; New York for the Cuomos) and concentrating influence to lay a foundation to seek out the pivotal roles -- i.e., governorships, Senate seats -- that often pave the way to the White House.
Also, there are some family names that have been left off the list. That's right; the U.S. has so many political dynasties to choose from, you can't boil them all down to a 10-point list.
Lots More Information
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- Ball, Molly. "George P. Bush: A Political Dynasty's Young Hope." The Atlantic. July 10, 2012. (Aug. 01, 2013) http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/07/george-p-bush-a-political-dynastys-young-hope/259640/
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- Kiely, Kathy. "Elections test power of political dynasties." USA Today. Aug. 03, 2010. (Aug. 01, 2013) http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/2010-08-03-1Adynasties03_CV_N.htm
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