In mid-December, Jeb Bush announced his intention to explore a presidential bid. If he runs and wins the Republican nomination and then the election, he will be the third President Bush in 25 years. That unprecedented prospect has left many wondering: In a republic like ours, is it proper for one family to fill the executive seat so often?
The Bushes are not the first family to send multiple members to the White House. They join the Adamses (father John and son John Quincy), the Harrisons (grandfather William Henry and grandson Benjamin), and the Roosevelts (cousins Theodore and Franklin). But the Bushes are in a class by themselves for the speed with which one succeeded another—just eight years apart. And if the third Bush wins the top job after another interval of eight years, that will only make the exception more pronounced.
While we might fret about this for cultural reasons, we must acknowledge that it has not come about by accident. In fact, dynasties make a lot of sense for practical politicians. Acquiring the presidency is enormously challenging, and political dynasties ease at least some of the difficulties either in securing the nomination or in winning the general election. To put it bluntly, dynasties endure because they are politically useful.
Not surprisingly, then, political dynasties have actually been quite common in American history, though not always family-based. From the early 19th century into the 20th, there were three state-based political dynasties that were even more dominant than the Bushes.
The Virginia dynasty dominated the presidency for the first quarter of the nineteenth century. President Thomas Jefferson (1801-09) was succeeded by James Madison (1809-17), then James Monroe (1817-25). Strictly on merit, Jefferson’s and Madison’s elections were eminently sensible—but Monroe’s less so. While he served with distinction as secretary of state and secretary of war during the War of 1812, his main qualifications for the presidency were residence in Virginia, the largest Southern state, and unflinching loyalty to Jefferson.
The initial purpose of the Electoral College was to distance the presidency from the factionalism of politics without resorting to life tenure. But this ideal was short-lived. To defeat John Adams in 1800, the Jeffersonians transformed battles for state legislatures into proxy contests for Electoral College votes—especially in New York and Pennsylvania. Thereafter, the Jeffersonian congressional caucus selected the party’s presidential nominee, who was virtually guaranteed victory thanks to a weakened Federalist party. This is how Monroe came to be president: By 1816, selection of the nation’s chief executive was an insider’s game, and Monroe was the ultimate insider.
After 1824, nominating power shifted to state parties, but dynasties persisted. From the Civil War until the Great Depression, the Republican party regularly nominated Ohioans, while the Democrats usually selected New Yorkers.
During this period, presidential elections were closely contested, and with corruption a prominent issue, neither party could afford to nominate anyone tainted by venality. For the Republicans, Ohio was a natural place to turn. The Buckeye State was an electoral-vote-rich, must-win battleground (even then!), and the Ohio GOP was (reasonably) free of corruption, unlike its counterparts in New York and Pennsylvania. New York state Democrats, meanwhile, who won statewide elections usually lined up against New York City’s corrupt Tammany Hall, which allowed them to present themselves as credible reformers. That, along with the Empire State’s 40-plus electoral votes and inevitably tight final margins, made it an obvious place for the Democrats to look for nominees. Between the Civil War and the Great Depression, the Republicans nominated Ohio politicians for president seven times, and the Democrats nominated New Yorkers seven times. Of these, six Ohio Republicans and two New York Democrats served as president.
That’s three dynasties in a little more than a century, from Virginia, Ohio, and New York.
Fast-forward to the modern era. The contours of the nomination battle and the general election have changed dramatically, but the difficulty of becoming president of the United States remains. Today, would-be presidents have to raise an extraordinary amount of money, and they must fight for the support of “low-information” voters, those whose knowledge of and engagement in the political process is limited. And here, a family dynasty helps: Each aspirant can build on the successes of his or her predecessors.