George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States 224 years ago, April 30, 1789.
Some folks had encouraged him to make it a coronation instead. Responding to Colonel Lewis Nicola, a Frenchman who served on the American side during the Revolutionary War and suggested Washington assume the crown, Washington retorted:
Let me conjure for you, then, if you have any regard for your Country, concern for yourself or for posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your mind and never communicate, as from yourself or any one else, a sentiment of the like nature.
In short, Washington wasn’t so keen on the idea. But it makes for an intriguing question: Who would be sitting on America’s throne today if Washington had been king?
I wasn’t fully aware of the nuances of royal succession until I took the challenge to track down Washington’s royal heir. It wasn’t a simple task—Washington had no children, which meant I’d be going through other family lines.
I started by scouting online lineages. Not surprisingly, there are countless family trees that include George Washington: if he’s any sort of relative of yours, you’re going to make sure he’s included, even if the connection is distant.
But while I found numerous trees, I also discovered no truly comprehensive George Washington family history anywhere online.
I knew this would be an issue since I would probably have to explore multiple branches of Washington’s family tree to identify—and almost more importantly, eliminate—potential king or queen candidates. But before venturing further into the Washington forest, it seemed to make sense to address my ignorance regarding the rules of royal succession.
Agnatic vs. Cognatic
How do you get the throne? I was so new to the topic that I didn’t even know what to google to learn more. I experimented with phrases like rules of royal descent, which led to terms like hereditary monarchy, and eventually I landed on agnatic and cognatic—words that were completely foreign to me.
Here’s my interpretation and oversimplification of the two with apologies to readers who grasp all the nuances of royal succession. With agnatic primogeniture (the right of the first-born son to inherit the throne), the succession is all male, all the time, and birth order plays an important role. With cognatic primogeniture, females get to play, provided all the usual male suspects have died out. There’s also agnatic-cognatic succession (I’m not making this up), which also allows females in the picture after all the eligible males are gone, but stresses how closely related the female is to the last reigning monarch.
I figured that even though the United States had won its freedom from England, we would most likely have patterned ourselves after the model of the United Kingdom—and with Queen Elizabeth on the throne, it seemed apparent that the UK allows females in the queue under at least some circumstances. But just when I began to hope that I might be able to wade through all the branches of the Washington tree using a single approach, the next stage of my research indicated that I wasn’t going to get off that easy.
Why Reinvent the Wheel?
It occurred to me that someone else must have pondered this question before, so I thought I’d see what their conclusions were. Somewhat to my surprise, I located only three thoughtful considerations of the matter. The most recent, “Stubborn Washington Spurned Kingdom,” had appeared in the Washington Times in July 2000. I discovered that Life had featured an article titled “If Washington Had Become King” in February 1951. And finally, a search of Google Books revealed a May 1908 piece called “If Washington Had Been Crowned” in the Scrap Book.
I found copies of all three, hoping against hope that they would all reach the same conclusion. I wanted a neon sign pointing to one person, but what I found—through no fault of any of the able writers—was additional confusion.
Each article crowned an individual but in some way included a back-up king—I’ve dubbed these the “safety monarch.” It’s similar to the heir-and-a-spare concept, only in these situations, the spare is attributable to differing succession interpretations and, consequently, can come from a far-flung branch of the family tree.
This left me appreciative and befuddled. I was grateful that I had a running start but confused by the multiple monarchs. The connection between the Craigs (see chart below) was easy enough to see—they were father and son—but even with the sketchy Washington family tree I had started to assemble, the links among the rest of the choices were far from obvious.
John A. Washington
I was in need of rescue and found it in the form of John A. Washington, a distant relative of George and partner in a Washington, D.C.-based investment counsel firm. The Washington Times article from 2000 stated that the editors had relied heavily on his research, and he was liberally quoted throughout. It was also apparent that he knew his agnatic from his cognatic, so I was confident he could help.
I caught John at the office and was dazzled by his photographic memory of all aspects of the extended Washington clan. I also learned that his research had served as the basis for the 1951 Life article. Now I was certain I was speaking to the one person who could make everything make sense.
John’s interest in the subject started back in the 1940s, when, as a med student, he had been bedridden with tuberculosis and advised to have complete rest—meaning he was not to look at his medical books. Resting but restless, he looked for something to occupy his time. “I was always aware of my name and my connection to the old general,” he said, “and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to learn more about the family tree. And, of course, it turned out to be perfectly gigantic.”
How gigantic? By John’s estimates, roughly 8,000 relatives—fewer than 150 of them still bearing the Washington name—could factor into the succession equation. Eight thousand? Yikes.
If there were potentially as many as 8,000 candidates, how had John managed to zero in on those singled out in the 1951 and 2000 articles? Did he, for instance, favor agnatic or cognatic succession? In other words, did he take the all-male approach, or did he allow females? Wisely, he declined to state a preference and explained that this was one of the reasons for the multiple designees.
I followed this with another question that had been vexing me. George Washington died without children, so the line of succession would have to veer right from the start through one of his brothers. But do I go with the older half brother, Augustine, or the younger full brother, Samuel?
In most succession schemes, primogeniture (first-born male) plays a critical part. You start with the oldest male and work your way down the age-chain. If the monarchy had started with Dad, Augustine—George’s older half brother—would be next in line, and George never would have gotten his turn at the theoretical kingship. (Note: Another older stepbrother, Lawrence, died with no children reaching adulthood.) But the scenario I was investigating didn’t start with George’s dad, so should I give seniority its due and go with Augustine, or should the crown pass, as it usually does, through the next oldest brother, Samuel? The writers of the earlier articles had shown a gentle preference for Samuel, but hedged their bets by acknowledging that Augustine’s descendants might have disagreed. I wasn’t sure where I stood, but I thought that Augustine’s branch should at least be given the chance to play along.
The agnatic/cognatic dilemma coupled with the older half brother/younger full brother conundrum produced four possible succession paths:
Agnatic via the older half brother
Agnatic via the younger full brother
Cognatic via the older half brother
Cognatic via the younger full brother
And this explained all the theoretical monarchs featured in the different articles. I was pleased that I now understood the root of my confusion. I resolved to follow in the proud tradition of my predecessors: I decided not to decide. I would follow all four possible trails to the throne.
The Paul Emery Washington Convergence
Just when I thought I was getting a handle on the situation, John mentioned that two of the four options converged into one: Paul Emery Washington. Being even slightly acquainted with the Washington tree, I knew that Paul was an unlikely king. He didn’t spring from a series of firstborns, but rather, assorted third- and fourth-borns. If he was a contender at all, it was due to the agnatic, no-girls-allowed mode of succession that can occasionally toss the crown to the most remote of cousins.
John told me that Paul had bubbled to the top in one path because the elder half brother’s line had daughtered out. He informed me that the last fellow in this line, William A. Washington, died in 1994, so the Washington surname had now gone extinct in this particular branch.
I knew John knew his stuff. I wasn’t second-guessing him, but I had to see for myself. It was one thing for me to accept that this branch had died out after almost three centuries—Augustine died in 1762. But what truly baffled me was how the next-in-line to William A. Washington could be Paul Emery Washington. As far as I could tell, he and Augustine were from completely different branches of the family tree.
Add to this the assertion that Paul was a double candidate because of the passing and daughtering-out of another very distant cousin of his in 1997, and I was even more skeptical. I was sure I would be able to make the connection between Paul and both of his sonless cousins, but for Paul to be the heir apparent of either of them—much less both—countless Washington men would have to be eliminated as monarchical candidates.
A complete database would help me with the task that I wasn’t looking forward to—identifying and dethroning all of those males. I cautiously asked John whether he might have such a database. No, he had started in the 1940s with paper and pen, and he continued that way. There was, however, a fellow in Florida who had the information in electronic format, but I was advised that he probably wouldn’t appreciate my inquiry.
John suggested I get the second edition of Burke’s Presidential Families of the United States of America. I thanked my lucky stars for online shopping, which makes purchasing a 27-year-old book easier than ever before.
Wading Through the Washingtons
When the book arrived I began to work my way through all four paths, starting with the easiest one. The cognatic/younger-full-brother combination that had led in earlier articles to the Craig family was fairly straightforward to follow. George (via his brother Samuel) to his nephew Thornton to his son John to his son Lawrence to his brother Daniel to his son Thornton to—allowing for females—his nephew Frank (via his sister Elizabeth) to his son Felix, who was designated in the 2000 article. Follow that?
Felix had died in 2002, but it wasn’t difficult to identify the next in line, Franklin H. Craig. Consulting the data in Burke’s, I assured myself that no candidates had been overlooked. Phew! That wasn’t too difficult. One down, three to go.
The cognatic/older-half-brother combination was a little more confusing, particularly because of the 1908 Scrap Book article. As I followed this succession route, I realized that I couldn’t account for William Lanier Washington, one of the kings mentioned in this piece. But a close reading revealed that the writer had dismissed a first-son line in the chain because that son “was com-pletely lost sight of by his family, though efforts were made to find him.” Since 1908, the Washington clan had managed to pick up his trail, bumping William Lanier Washington out of his former spot.
Instead, the line led from the lost son, Bushrod Washington, to his son Spotswood to his son Bushrod II. At this point, females would have entered the picture because Bushrod II only had a daughter named Estella. Queen Estella would have reigned from 1918 to her death in 1931, but because her only child had predeceased her, the succession would have swung to her oldest uncle’s branch. He was also deceased, but had two living children from separate marriages. The son, though younger and from the second marriage, would have been given preference, so that would give America a King Lee from 1931 to 1969. Lee also only had one daughter. Like her father, Queen Odelle would have enjoyed a lengthy rule—1969 to 2000. And with her majesty’s passing, we would now be under the dominion of Queen Brynda.
Although I’d like to think I’m neutral in all this, I have to confess that the notion of kings and queens with names like Spotswood, Bushrod, Estella, Lee, Odelle, and Brynda is appealing. And the fact that Odelle married into the Hanson name is even more fitting, given that a gentleman by the name of John Hanson is sometimes referred to as the first president since he was the first President of the United States in Congress Assembled to serve under a fully ratified Articles of Confederation.
So, depending on whether you started with Augustine or Samuel, a cognatic America winds up with Queen Brynda or King Frank II (his grandfather was also Frank). But now it was time to investigate the agnatic, or male-only, lines that supposedly both converged on Paul Emery Washington. I knew I was in for some serious genealogical slogging.
I decided to start with the agnatic/younger-full-brother combination. This was the same as the cognatic/younger-brother path all the way until it reached the second Thornton, who died in 1935. Using the strictly all-male approach, there were no more candidates in his part of the family tree, so it became necessary to back up to Thornton’s long-deceased Uncle Benjamin and come forward through his line. This led to Lawrence Washington, one of those enthroned in the 1951 article. Although he gamely carried the virtual crown for many years, he died in 1997 at age 97.
Lawrence had a daughter, but the agnatic requirement to exclude females forced a retreat back up his line. His father’s only brother had died without issue, so it was back to his grandfather. Some of his grandfather’s brothers’ lines already had to die out for Lawrence to have come into contention in the first place, and I watched in amazement as more than half a dozen other candidates removed themselves from the monarchical pool by dying young, remaining life-long bachelors, or marrying but having no children. So now it was back to Lawrence’s great-grandfather. The same pattern repeated itself, with all possible candidates erasing themselves from consideration.
I eventually found myself all the way back to Samuel, George Washington’s younger full brother. Having already ruled out all the descendants from his children from his first three wives (he had five in all), I turned to wife number four. It was his fourth son by his fourth wife, Lawrence Augustine Washington, who finally led to a viable line of males. And as the great-great-grandson of Lawrence Augustine, Paul Emery was indeed the next in line. So the chain of succession had veered across multiple generations and branches from Lawrence, who passed away in 1997, all the way to Paul, his half-fourth-cousin.
Dreading what was to come, I steeled myself for the agnatic/older-half-brother trail. Had it also, as John indicated, died out all the way back to Samuel? I started with William Augustine, who had died in 1994 in his late eighties. I couldn’t help but notice that there seemed to be a recessive gene in the Washington family that conveyed longevity along with the faux-monarchy. But it also seemed to pass along a predisposition for being the last in the line.
I worked my way back though William Augustine’s line one generation and one branch at a time, ping-ponging between Burke’s and the software. I found myself softly humming Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” as I crossed off several for marrying but having no kids. Numerous bachelors adorned the Washington family tree, and I summarily lopped off their stunted branches as I continued my climb. Still others died young.
When I finally got to the top, I saw that I had once again arrived at Samuel. This meant that with the 1994 passing of William Augustine, the agnatic paths for the older half brother and younger full brother had essentially merged, so I knew where this was going. After a brief detour through Lawrence (1994–97), the crown went once again to Paul. Yes, John was right. Paul Emery was the double winner of the agnatic sweepstakes.
King Frank II, Queen Brynda, or King Paul I
Depending on which mode of succession you favor, there are three possible outcomes, just as John A. Washington told me. I asked him what he made of all this, and he politely pointed out that this whole situation was even more hypothetical than it seemed on the surface. After all, he mused, if the family really had been royal, wouldn’t at least some of them have made different choices about their marriages? Wouldn’t there have been pressure to pair up with other royals, for example? Speaking about George Washington’s refusal to become king, he remarked, “The old boy knew what he was doing in that regard.”
I couldn’t agree more.
(A version of this article originally appeared in Ancestry magazine, Sept/Oct 2008, as “The Man Who Would Be King,” by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak.)