Many moons ago — so many, in fact, that a conflict which saw extensive hand-to-hand combat inspired enough shock and awe in that innocent time to be dubbed “the Great War” — the British royal family exercised a bold maneuver. As atrocity stories of pointy-helmeted Germans bayoneting Belgian infants were promulgated on the homefront, King George V took the only prudent course of action: given the British royals’ German ancestry, he changed the family name from “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” to the quite English “Windsor” — which prompted old Kaiser Wilhelm one night to quip that he was off to see a production of “The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.”
Ever since then, not only has German humor taken a turn for the nonexistent, monarchy has, while extant, become a most decrepit institution. The world over, the British sovereign maintains perhaps the most significant authority of any monarch as the head of the Church of England, giving her majesty Queen Elizabeth II power over some three dozen or so odd churchgoers these days.
But no matter. The larger purpose here is to illustrate that the days of the hereditary sovereign have come and gone, and few would argue that we are the worse for it. However, mysteriously enough, political dynasties seem to be with us still.
India, “the world’s largest democracy,” as some choose to categorize it, consigned hereditary monarchy to history more than half a century ago. But judging by the electoral victory of the Congress Party and Sonia Gandhi’s near ascension to the throne last week, they the people have yet to free themselves from their fascination with dynasties. Gandhi, who would have been the fourth member of her family to lead India, in the end rejected the post in the face of objections by nationalists who said they could not accept a foreign-born prime minister.
In Asia more generally, from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh, Pakistan and beyond, family dynasties are the rule rather than the exception at any given time. Even in Communist states, inheritance is a valued principle — if only by the elites for the elites — the Kims of North Korea being the most obvious example, going so far as to resurrect hereditary dictatorship.
In the Middle East, keeping political power in the family is still commonplace — Saudi Arabia, Oman, and all the Gulf States are family regimes. The Syrian dictatorship is a family affair, as was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Family relationships lie even at the heart of Iran’s Islamic theocracy. And of the 50-some odd African countries, over 40 are ruled by some form of family connection.
And if anyone begins to think for a moment that only corrupt, third world regimes are subject to the dynastic principle, then a close examination of U.S. politics, with a Kennedy lurking behind every Bush, might strongly suggest otherwise.
Kevin Phillips in American Dynasty, his hatchet job on those very Bushes, compares the family to the restored monarchies of Old Europe — the Stuarts of 1600s England, and the Bourbons of 1800s France. Phillips believes that a new politics of family, cronyism, and class has swept the country, an era akin to the Gilded Age of Rockefellers, Morgans, and other assorted Robber Barons.
However, while most Americans would likely subscribe to Enlightenment notions such as Thomas Paine’s that a hereditary ruler is “as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an heredity wiseman,” is the pervasiveness of political dynasties in recent years a problem in and of itself?
IN THE EARLY DAYS OF the American republic, there was a great deal of concern among its founders that the young and fragile nation could be vulnerable to such despotism as a monarchy should necessarily bring. Indeed, it has been a long-held assumption among historians that George Washington’s childlessness was a cornerstone of his legacy, as well as being fundamental to the stability of the early United States. Some point out that, because Washington had no biological children and because he shunned monarchy, he was for those reasons alone mythologized as the Father of Our Country. At his death, one of his funeral orators pronounced, “Americans! He had no child — but you.”
Washington himself sensed the mythical weight of not having offspring. In a draft of his first inaugural address he wrote, “I have no child, no family to build in greatness upon my country’s ruins.”
It is interesting to note that Washington blamed his wife for their inability to conceive a child, a quite common attitude for men of the era. Most historians have taken Washington at his word and assumed that Martha was the infertile member of the couple. At age 54, he wrote in a diary that, if Martha were to die before he did, he believed he could have children by a younger wife (although he added, to his credit, that he would only consider marriage to “a woman of an age suitable to my own.”) So it seems that Washington still hoped for a child.
Earlier this year, however, in the March issue of the medical journal Sterility and Fertility, a researcher concluded that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Washington himself may have been infertile. John Amory, a professor at the Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, argues that the most likely cause of the Washingtons’ inability to procreate was a tuberculosis infection — which George, not Martha, contracted before their marriage in 1759, when both were 27 years old. He outlines the medical reasons for tuberculosis as a likely cause of sterility, and also points out that Martha, as a young widow with four children when she married Washington, had some record of fertility.
And so we are left to wonder, if Washington had been able to conceive a child, how would history have greeted its birth? And more simply, would the child’s father have maintained the same attitude toward family legacies? It is, after all, human nature to want successes equal to or greater than one’s own for one’s heirs. And this is a socially useful instinct on the part of humans, causing greater family cohesion, loyalty and an intergenerational sense of obligation.
There are, of course, drawbacks to family favoritism. Nepotism has a long and, in many instances, seedy history. Romans coined the word nepotismo (based on the word nepos, meaning nephew) in the 14th century to describe how relatives of the pope — often his own illegitimate sons — used family connections to advance in what they likely viewed as the family business, some even reaching the rank of cardinal. Edmund Burke, in his criticisms of the French Revolution, predicted that the radicals would never eliminate the natural human tendency toward blood loyalty and some degree of nepotism. Napoleon fulfilled Burke’s prophecy and became one of the most successful nepotists of all time, crowning his siblings with reckless abandon across the continent he conquered.
So how would Washington’s anti-familial convictions have fared, decades before Boneparte became a household name, had he been able to experience the joys of actual fatherhood, as opposed to making due with the mythical variety?
ANOTHER INCIDENT EARLY IN the country’s history could shed some light on the subject. In 1776, some of Washington’s officers were preparing to form an organization called the Society of the Cincinnati, which they hoped would become primarily a benevolent society for the care of officers, their widows, orphans, and other family members affected by the war.
The name was chosen in honor of Cincinnatus, the general who in 458 B.C. abandoned his idyllic life as a farmer to lead Roman armies against the Aequi. Many officers serving in the Continental army left their own agricultural livelihoods and families behind in order to defend their homes, as did Washington himself. After the war, again emulating Cincinnatus, he willingly resigned his commission and return to private life. The officers chose as the Society’s motto: Omnia relinquit servare rempublicam — “He abandons everything to serve his country.” Washington was named president by its organizers, and Lord Byron would one day refer to him as the “Cincinnatus of the West.”
But Thomas Jefferson, after studying the society’s founding document, voiced his displeasure to Washington, attacking especially the hereditary clause on the ground that it was not aligned with “the natural rights of the people” but with the branches of “privilege & prerogative.”
After attending to such objections from Jefferson and others, Washington abruptly changed his position on the matter, writing in 1784 that he would, “Discontinue the hereditary part in all its connexions, absolutely…” as it pertained to the society. Washington, unwilling to stand up to hostile reactions such as Jefferson’s, was doubtful at this point that the Society could be saved.
But at the very moment he was presenting to the delegates his argument that they consider disbanding their society, an extraordinary thing happened — the French came to the rescue. Pierre L’Enfant arrived from France with eagle badges he himself had designed for the society and with the news that the French officers had eagerly formed a parallel French society, with the blessings of Louis XVI. And as the pièce de résistance, L’Enfant presented Washington with a golden eagle studded with diamonds, in the name of the French navy. He also brought news that the French members had pledged substantial financial support to the Society of the Cincinnati.
It was now impossible to abolish the Society without insulting America’s indispensable ally. And aware that his reputation was on the line, Washington could no longer use the threat of withdrawing his membership to gain the passage of the amendments he wanted. In the end, he was forced to compromise, but the hereditary aspect was removed after much debate. However, before the year was out, some of the state societies were proposing to reintroduce the hereditary principle, and eventually the entire society would adopt it.
Today, the society’s 3,600 members are all direct descendants of Washington’s officers, just as those men intended, with membership passed on generally to the oldest surviving son in each generation. And such family loyalties seem not to have harmed the republic which their ancestors created and defended.