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« Down and Dirty Linkage | Main | Seating Strategies »

December 19, 2008

Successful Dynasties

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

As I write this, no decision has been announced regarding the appointment of Caroline Kennedy as Hilary Clinton's replacement as a senator for New York.

This raises yet again the matter of political dynasties in the United States. (When her father was President, there was a joke going around that JFK will hand it over to brother Bobby in 1968 who will pass the office to brother Teddy in 1976. After 8 years of Teddy, it'll be 1984!)

There has been lots of U.S. political dynasty talk on the Web, and I won't add to it. Instead, why not back up a step and discuss dynasties in general.

Any dynasty starts with an able person. "Able" in the sense that a skill set is present that is well-tuned to achieve a certain goal. The skills might not always be "nice" ones: Has anyone who came near cornering the gold market or conquering the known world been nice?

The world of business offers a good empirical test of the persistence of merit across generations. Obviously, an offspring of the founder of a major, family-controlled business has a huge head start. So one measure of success might simply be keeping the concern going in a steady state even making modest gains. For instance, Frederick William Vanderbilt, a grandson of Cornelius, was able to increase the wealth he inherited (though his brothers didn't). A major legacy of Frederick is his mansion in Hyde Park, New York, a few miles north of Franklin Roosevelt's home.

Typically, business success does not inherit well; consider the old saying: "From shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations." In practice, it might take more than three generations. The Ford Motor Company is on its fourth Ford generation, though William C. Ford, Jr., Executive Chairman, and the rest of the family have tended to let non-family members manage the company with usually light oversight since the death of Henry Ford II, founder Henry's grandson (though Bill, Jr. did assume an active role in recent years). The Ochs-Sulzberger clan that controlled The New York Times since 1896 has been successful until recently.

The Rothschild banking family has been hanging in there for nearly 200 years. I haven't researched them, but wonder if primogeniture was generally applied by them in terms of who would run the various branches. Actually, I'm inclined to think not, given the long time span. (Informational comments welcome regarding this.)

Let's turn back to politics, this time in the form of royalty. I'll set aside hereditary nobility because many noble families have lost most of their power and even wealth over the centuries. On the subject of setting things aside, we might as well do that for constitutional monarchies such as are found in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Britain. If the monarch has no real power, his degree of competence matters little to the survival and prosperity of his country.

Monarchies do have a way of hanging on, but some rejuvenation usually takes place after a few generations. A common excuse for a more distant relative to muscle in happens when a monarch is childless or (depending on the local legal understanding) fails to have a male heir. This has been the case for the English monarchy. Supposedly Queen Elizabeth II can trace her ancestry back to William the Conqueror. But William himself had his own claims to the monarchy based on some sort of kinship consideration. In any case, England's royal history is marked by a series of Houses holding the throne: Tudor, Plantagenet, Windsor, etc.

Egypt had a monarchy for three thousand years, but there were more than thirty dynasties, about one per century. Japan's monarchy is the longest-running continuous hereditary one, according to this source.

Japan seems to be a special case. Its island geography makes it difficult to invade and it lacked strong neighboring nations until recent times, so threats to the monarchy were largely domestic for centuries. Eventually the emperor's power was largely usurped by shoguns and, during the early years of the Showa era, a similarly military group.

European royal politics were messy during the centuries when kings held actual power. For the moment, my prize for the longest-lasting dynastic monarchy of consequence goes to the Habsburgs of Austria whose roots can be traced to the 12th century. Their reign ended in 1918 at the conclusion of the Great War.

Since I'm not a big royalty buff, other nominations for the roster of successful dynasties are welcome.



posted by Donald at December 19, 2008


The House of Bourbon dates from the early 13th century. They are still floating around in Europe to this day. King Juan Carlos of Spain is a Bourbon. I believe everyone is familiar with the French Bourbon dynasty which included Louis XIV, XV, and XVI.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on December 19, 2008 7:33 PM

Has anyone who came near cornering the gold market or conquering the known world been nice?

Words of wisdom!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 19, 2008 9:37 PM

I've always thought that the fact that certain families in the U.S. attain prominence, and end up holding political power, regardless of partisan affiliations (note how the Roosevelt presidents were in both parties, for example), shows that the popular appeal of dynasties is as much the case in republics like the U.S. as in monarchies like Britain (and Canada, and Australia, and New Zealand, etc.). But as to what it all mean, I have no idea. People like families, and support them?

Posted by: Will S. on December 20, 2008 2:23 AM

One of the really interesting cases of royal succession is the century of adoptions between the Emperor Nerva and the Emperor Commodus.

After Vespasian's rescue of the empire, he was succeeded by his son, Titus. Titus was hated as a busy-body and fuss-pot till he came to power, but by the end of his brief reign he was revered (especially by non-Jews who liked big sports venues). Titus was succeeded by his brother, the unsavoury Domitian. Upon Domitian's assassination, the army and senate seemed to realise that bloodline had never much helped the imperial cause. Did they consciously consider that the Divine Augustus had been the adopted son of Uncle Julius?

A new emperor was appointed, the elderly and respectable Nerva, on the understanding that he would adopt the golden boy, Trajan, as his successor. Trajan adopted Hadrian, Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius, and Antoninus adopted Marcus Aurelius. By and large, a truly golden succession.

Marcus Aurelius was a great believer in education: his birth-son had the best of training for the imperial purple. So it was back to bloodline, and the superbly educated and highly trained Commodus became emperor.


Posted by: Robert Townshend on December 20, 2008 2:38 AM

Europe is unique in its degree of hereditary dynasticism. Europe dynasties far outlast those in other cultures. (Japan being the one exception, and the Mikado has been a figurehead nearly all of that time.)

When there were disputes over titles, the would be usurpers were almost always close relatives claiming hereditary right, or imposters. England is a case in point.

Also, in Europe, territories ranging from small fiefdoms to entire kingdoms were transferred by inheritance, under internationally recognized rules, and bits of territory in remote areas were held for hundreds of years under hereditary claims despite being militarily indefensible, i.e. the title was respected.

Much of the fragmentation of Germany from the Middle Ages stayed in place for centuries.

I do believe the longest succession of inheritance anywhere was the Kings of France from Hugh Capet through John I - 13 father-son inheritances over 341 years.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on December 20, 2008 3:47 AM

"But as to what it all mean, I have no idea." I suggest that it means that an awful lot of people seem to have a weakness for kowtowing to fame and/or power. That's the huge advantage of Constitutional Monarchy - you separate the object of veneration from the mere politician, thus exposing the politician to more discipline. I suspect that the best form of Constitutional Monarchy is the hereditary one - an elected one probably wouldn't work so well. The Monarch-as-potentate is a system I don't like, even when it's an elected monarch such as the US has.

Posted by: dearieme on December 20, 2008 3:22 PM

Washington's soldiers wanted to crown him king but he believed in a republic instead of a monarchy and as President dissuaded people from bowing to him. Ironic that the dynastically elected Bush once jokingly referred to himself as the second "George W" in the white house.

Posted by: hello on December 20, 2008 4:34 PM

One can also make too much of apparent "dynastic" connections. Each of the four Bushes (Prescott, George H. W., George W., Jeb) succeeded in politics well separated from the others.

John Q. Adams' success came after John had been defeated and was in retirement; he earned his appointments as minister to various countries and Sec of State.

Compare to Al Gore jr, who stepped into the House seat held by his father for 12 years, only 4 years after Al sr lost his Senate seat. (The man who had replaced Al sr when he moved up to the Senate retired to make way for jr - after 22 years, to be sure.)

Or John Dingell jr, Daniel Lipinski, Kendrick Meek, Lucille Roybal-Allard, Bill Shuster, Gus Bilirakis, and now Duncan Hunter all were elected to the House as immediate successors to a parent. That's dynasticism.

There are also "interrupted" dynasties. For instance, the Boren family of Oklahoma. Lyle was a Representative from 1936 to 1946; David was a Senator from 1978 to 1994; and Daniel is a Representative since 2004. One may guess that the name provided some recognition and entrée, but after a gap of 10 or 20 years, the kid has to win on his own.

Some instances of that could include Napoleon III, who certainly benefited from his uncle's memory - but came to power over 30 years after Napoleon I was defeated, deposed, and exiled. Or Megawati Sukarno, who became chair of her father's political party 25 years or so after he was gone, and then President 10 years later.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on December 21, 2008 4:21 AM

The Rothschilds practiced first cousin and uncle-niece marriage to an astonishing degree. Something like 15 out of the first 21 marriages of direct Rothschild heirs would be illegal in all American states today.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on December 21, 2008 4:40 AM

Each of the four Bushes (Prescott, George H. W., George W., Jeb) succeeded in politics well separated from the others.

One could not seriously argue that Jeb and George W. did not build their careers solidly upon the career of their father.

Posted by: James on December 23, 2008 8:01 PM

A number of the examples are fairly old: from a time when people had very large families. The Kennedys are throwbacks that way - Joe Sr and Robert had very large families. Roosevelt had a large family. There'll be someone with promise in your brood if you have six. If it's just Chelsea, not so much.

Posted by: dave.s. on December 24, 2008 6:30 AM

As far as dynastic rule in modern politics, I don't think any of the developed nations can beat the Japanese. The current prime minister (Asou Tarou) is the grandson of a prime minister (Yoshida Shigeru), and the great-great-grandson of one of the leaders in the Meiji Restoration (Okubo Toshimichi); Asou's younger sister is married to one of the Imperial Princes. Asou's predecessor, Fukuda Yasuo, was the son of prime minister Fukuda Takeo. Fukuda II's predecessor, Abe Shinzou, was the grandson of prime minister Kishi Nobusuke, and the great-nephew of prime minister Satou Eisaku (Kishi's biological younger brother). Abe's predecessor, Koizumi Junichiro, did not descend from a prime minister (as far as I am aware), but does descend from a political dynasty, as both his father and grandfather were members of the Diet. Koizumi's predecessor, Mori Yoshiro, also descended from a political dynasty, but they were just mayors. Mori's predecessor, Obuchi Keizou, doesn't seem to have descended from a dynasty at all, but his daughter did the usual thing and took over his seat in the Diet when he died. She's part of the Asou cabinet at the moment, unless there's been a reorganisation.

My favourite example of the descent of Japanese politicians, by far, is Hosokawa Morihiro, the first non-LDP prime minister in two generations, when he took office in 1993. Hosokawa was descended, through his father, from the Hosokawa daimyos who had ruled Tokyo during the Tokugawa shogunate, and through the Hosokawas, descended from the 56th Emperor, Seiwa (9th century). Through his mother, he was descended from Prince Fumimaro Konoe, a prime minister during the war, and through Prince Konoe, descended from the Fujiwaras, who first rose to prominence in the 6th century, and from the 7th to about the 11th centuries, effectively ruled Japan as regents, during the Heian era. That is an exalted lineage.

Posted by: Taeyeong on December 28, 2008 4:55 AM

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