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Political Nepo Babies Root Back to America’s Founding

8 minute read
Good is an award-winning historian, professor, and author. Her most recent book is First Family: George Washington's Heirs and the Making of America

Over the past two decades of American presidential politics, it has been hard to escape the power of family ties. Bill, Hillary, and even Chelsea Clinton; George H.W., George W., and Jeb Bush; Donald, Eric and Don Trump Jr., plus Jared and Ivanka Kushner. The House Republicans’ impeachment inquiry on President Biden’s possible ties to his son Hunter’s international business interests (despite the lack of evidence thus far of any such connection) is only the latest example of seeing politics, especially the presidency, as a family business.

In a democracy, of course, political power and prestige is not supposed to transfer to relatives or serve as a source of wealth for them. But the fact is, family members milking (or been perceived as doing so) relationships to presidents is hardly new. In fact, the roots of this go all the way back to our first president, George Washington.

Part of the appeal of having George Washington as the nation’s first president was the very fact that he did not have “blood-related” children (the distinction “blood-related” is important here). One 1788 newspaper article reprinted across the country listed the benefits of having Washington as president, with one being: “As having no son—and therefore not exposing us to the danger of an hereditary successor.” John Adams noted with relief to Thomas Jefferson that if Washington had had a child, the European royal families would have wanted to set up a marriage, and that would have disrupted American’s commitment to end hereditary power.

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Yet, although Washington may not have fathered any children himself, he still had plenty of family members who could benefit from their ties to him. Most prominent, politically, was his nephew Bushrod Washington, who would inherit Mount Vernon. Early in Washington’s presidency, Bushrod asked George Washington to give him an appointment as a district attorney, but Washington refused because he knew critics could pounce on him for nepotism. Nonetheless, he later urged Bushrod to run for the House of Representatives and was disappointed when Bushrod accepted a seat on the (then very weak) Supreme Court from John Adams. It wasn’t that Washington was against having his family members enter politics: He just wouldn’t hand them the job. Bushrod did seem to have taken the lesson from his uncle to heart though, and he not only carved out his career on his own terms, but avoided discussing his relationship to Washington most of his life. Nor did the other Washington nieces and nephews promote that connection; they lived quiet lives as Virginia planters.

In contrast, George Washington’s step grandchildren followed a different path. Martha Washington had had two surviving children from her first marriage, but both died young, and her son left behind four children. George and Martha unofficially adopted the younger two grandchildren, Nelly and Wash Custis, and played a large role in raising the elder two, Eliza and Patty. All of them spent time with the Washingtons in the President’s House as children and young adults. Nelly was a talented musician and often played for prominent guests, making her famous—so famous that there was a wax figure of her in a museum in the late 1790s. Washington tried mightily to get Wash a strong education so that he could enter a career in public service, but Wash was a terrible student who managed to get himself kicked out of Princeton. For most of his adult life, he actually could not have run for public office even if he had wanted to; he lived in Arlington, which was part of the District of Columbia and thus had no representation. Nor, of course, could his sisters play formal political roles.

All four Custis siblings, however, used their Washington connections to gain social prestige and a voice on the national stage. Wash Custis held annual events at his plantation under George Washington’s camp tent, where he gave patriotic speeches that he made sure were in the newspapers. He became increasingly in-demand as a speaker at public ceremonies, giving him a platform to share his perspectives on American politics and Washington’s legacy. He and his home full of objects from Mount Vernon became a tourist attraction featured in 19th-century guides to the nation’s capital. He also knew every president in his lifetime, giving him insider political access.

When Wash Custis or his sisters endorsed a candidate or a cause, it was seen as carrying the George Washington stamp of approval. Wash’s sister Patty gave a gift in the form of one of Washington’s colonial army ornaments to an anti-war society in Boston during the War of 1812, and the society’s leaders responded in a letter printed in newspapers that they were glad to have the Washington family’s approval of their political position. Nelly Custis Lewis’s daughter married a ward of Andrew Jackson, and she took it upon herself to speak for and defend him to critics. Eliza Custis befriended James and Dolley Madison, using that connection to try to help save a friend’s job as a diplomat. Eliza, Nelly, and Wash all gave gifts of Washington objects to Andrew Jackson to suggest the endorsement of George Washington himself for their chosen candidate.

Would George Washington have approved of his step-grandchildren’s use of his name? After all, they weren’t getting cushy government appointments or otherwise making money off of their connections—and they weren’t using it to get themselves elected. But power comes in many forms, including influence and social status. These the Custises most certainly gained from their connections, and they used this power in ways Washington likely would not have approved—such as when Patty Custis Peter, who had become quite pro-British during the War of 1812, got the band at the British ambassador’s going away party in DC to play “God Save the King.”

The Custises began a tradition of power by association that has coexisted uncomfortably with American democracy ever since, often with even more direct ties to political power. John Adams’ son John Quincy Adams became president, while John Quincy’s son Charles Francis became a congressman and ambassador. The Bayard family of Delaware sent five members to the U.S. Senate, and a single generation of the Lee family had seven political figures. Political science scholar Kimberly Lynn Casey calculated that, as of 2008, nearly 70% of American presidents were members of political families. Beyond elected roles, there are many more examples. Around 70% of federal judges had one or more relatives in politics in the nation’s first century; Woodrow Wilson’s wife Edith effectively took over the presidency after her husband’s stroke; and John F. Kennedy appointed his brother Robert as U.S. Attorney General.

Kennedy’s appointment of his brother to a cabinet-level position rankled Americans, and federal law was changed to bar such appointments. Many states also have laws against granting relatives political jobs. But while Americans don’t necessarily support hereditary power and nepotism, they understand that it remains common. In a February 2023 survey by YouGov, out of 10 fields, politics was the one in which the highest number of respondents said nepotism was very common (53%). Federal and state laws have plenty of gaps that allow, for instance, congresspeople to hire their relatives to work in their offices or the president to make his children high-ranking aides. Scholars of family political dynasties in America point out that children in political families are socialized into the profession and thus grow up with political skills and knowledge. There is also the importance of a shared family name that benefits relatives seeking power or profit. 

Americans should remain wary when it comes to the long tradition of families of politicians benefiting from those relationships. We must distinguish between dangerous abuses of power and less serious improprieties. It is unlikely that we will bring an end to political family members receiving any form of power, particularly in terms of the social standing or business advantages that come from name recognition. However, political appointments and payments to family members clearly endanger a democratic system that should be built on merit.

In a draft of his first inaugural address, George Washington noted that he had no child who could “build in greatness upon my Country’s ruins”—in other words, no heir to seize power and destroy democracy. It is a threat we should remain vigilant about today.

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