the Biggest Lies in History

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According to myth, a young George Washington confessed to cutting down a cherry tree by proclaiming, “I cannot tell a lie.” The story is testament to how much respect Americans have for their cherished first president and honesty in general. Unfortunately, in the annals of history it seems there are 10 dishonest scoundrels for every honorable hero like Washington.
Supposedly, the truth can set you free. But for many, deceit holds the key to money, fame, revenge or power, and these prove all too tempting. In history, this has often resulted in elaborate hoaxes, perjuries, and forgeries that had enormous ripple effects.
In the following pages, we’ll go over some of the most colossal and significant lies in history. Although such a list can’t be comprehensive, we sought to include a variety of lies that influenced politics, science and even art. As a result of these, lives were lost, life-savings destroyed, legitimate research hampered and — most of all — faith in our fellow man shattered.
Without further ado, let’s delve into one of the oldest and most successful lies on record.

The Trojan Horse

If all is fair in love and ­war, this might be the most forgivable of the big lies. When the Trojan Paris absconded with Helen, wife of the Spartan king, war exploded. It had been raging for 10 long years when the Trojans believed they had finally overcome the Greeks. Little did they know, the Greeks had another trick up their sleeves.
In a stroke of genius, the Greeks built an enormous wooden horse with a hollow belly in which men could hide. After the Greeks convinced their foes that this structure was a peace offering, the Trojans happily accepted it and brought the horse within their fortified city. That night, as the Trojans slept, Greeks hidden inside snuck out the trap door. Then, they proceeded to slaughter and decisively defeat the Trojans.
This was unquestionably one of the biggest and most successful tricks known to history — that is, if it’s true. Homer mentions the occurrence in “The Iliad,” and Virgil extrapolates the story in “The Aeneid.” Evidence suggests that Troy itself existed, giving some validity to Homer’s tales, and scholars have long been investigating how historically accurate these details are. One theory behind the Trojan horse comes from historian Michael Wood, who proposes that it was merely a battering ram in the shape of a horse that infiltrated the city [source: Haughton].
In any case, the story has won a permanent place in the Western imagination as a warning to beware of enemies bearing gifts.

Han van Meegeren’s Vermeer Forgeries
In any case, the story has won a permanent place in the Western imagination as a warning to beware of enemies bearing gifts.
With his fake Vermeers like the one here, van Meegeren duped experts and made lots money.
AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere
This lie re­sulted from a classic case of wanting to please the critics. Han van Meegeren was an artist who felt underappreciated and thought he could trick art experts into admitting his genius.
In the early 20th century, scholars were squabbling about whether the great Vermeer had painted a series of works depicting biblical scenes. Van Meegeren pounced on this opportunity and set to work carefully forging one such disputed work, “The Disciples at Emmaus.” With tireless attention to detail, he faked the cracks and aged hardness of a centuries-old painting. He intentionally played on the confirmation bias of critics who wanted to believe that Vermeer painted these scenes. It worked: Experts hailed the painting as authentic, and van Meegeren made out like a bandit producing and selling more fake Vermeers. Greed apparently overcame his desire for praise, as he decided not to out himself.
However, van Meegeren, who was working in the 1930s and ’40s, made one major mistake. He sold a painting to a prominent member of the Nazi party in Germany. After the war, Allies considered him a conspirator for selling a “national treasure” to the enemy [source: Wilson]. In a curious change of events, van Meegeren had to paint for his freedom. In order to help prove that the painting was no national treasure, he forged another in the presence of authorities.
He escaped with a light sentence of one year in prison, but van Meegeren died of a heart attack two months after his trial.

Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme
Bernard Madoff pulled off the biggest financial scheme in history.
AP/Jason DeCrow
When Bernie Madoff admitted that his investment firm was “just one big lie,” it was an understatement [source: Esposito]. In 2008, he confessed to having conned about $50 billion from investors who trusted him with their savings. Madoff used the f­ormula of a Ponzi scheme to keep up the fraud for more than a decade.
This classic lie is named after the notorious Charles Ponzi, who used the ploy in the early 20th century. It works like this: A schemer promises investors great returns, but instead of investing the money, he keeps some for himself and uses the funds from new investments to pay off earlier investors.
Madoff may not have invented this lie, but he took it to new lengths. For one, he made a record amount of money from the scheme. But he was also able to keep it going much longer than most Ponzi schemers. Usually, the scam falls apart quickly because it requires the schemer to constantly find more and more investors. It was also an especially shocking lie because Madoff, as a former chairman of NASDAQ, had been an accomplished and respected expert in the financial field. Compare this to Chares Ponzi, who was a petty ex-con by the time he launched his scheme.

Anna Anderson, Alias Anastasia
The real Anastasia, left, was 17 when she was executed. Anna Anderson, right, claimed to be her.
Left: AP Photo/File; Right: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
With the onslaught of the Russian Revolution, the existence of a royal family was intolerabl­e to the Bolsheviks. In 1918, they massacred the royal Romanov family — Czar Nicholas II, his wife, son and four daughters — to ensure that no legitimate heir could later resurface and rally the public for support.
Soon, rumors floated around that certain members of the royal family had escaped and survived. As one might expect, claimants came out of the woodwork. “Anna Anderson” was the most famous. In 1920, Anderson was admitted to a hospital after attempting suicide and confessed that she was Princess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the royal family. She stood out from other claimants because she held a certain resemblance to and surprising knowledge of the Russian family and life at court.
Although a few relatives and acquaintances who’d known Anastasia believed Anderson, most didn’t. By 1927, an alleged former roommate of Anderson claimed that her name was Franziska Schanzkowska, not Anna and certainly not Anastasia [source: Aron]. This didn’t stop Anderson from indulging in celebrity and attempting to cash in on a royal inheritance. She ultimately lost her case in the legal proceedings that dragged on for decades, but she stuck to her story until her death in 1984. Years later, upon the discovery of what proved to be the remains of the royal family, DNA tests confirmed her to be a fake. In 2009, experts were able to finally confirm that all remains have been found and that no family member escaped execution in 1918 [source: CNN].

Titus Oates and the Plot to Kill Charles II
Titus Oates is depicted standing in the pillory after being convicted of purjury.
Archive Photos/Getty Images
By the time he fabricated his notorious plot, Titus Oates already had a history of deception and ­general knavery. He’d been expelled from some of England’s finest schools as well as the navy. Oates was even convicted of perjury and escaped imprisonment. But his biggest lie was still ahead of him.
Raised Protestant by an Anabaptist preacher, Oates entered Cambridge as a young man to study for Anglican orders. After misconduct got him dismissed from his Anglican post, he started associating with Catholic circles and feigned conversion [source:Butler]. With the encouragement of fellow anti-Catholic Israel Tonge, Oates infiltrated enemy territory by entering a Catholic seminary. In fact, he entered two seminaries — both of which expelled him. But it hardly mattered. By this time, he had gathered enough inside information and names to wreak enormous havoc.
In 1678, Oates concocted and pretended to uncover a plot in which the Jesuits were planning to murder King Charles II. The idea was that they wanted to replace Charles with his Catholic brother, James. What ensued was a three-year panic that fueled anti-Catholic sentiment and resulted in the executions of about 35 people [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].
After Charles died in 1685, James became king and had Oates tried for perjury. Oates was convicted, pilloried and imprisoned. He only spent a few years in jail, however, as the Glorious Revolution swept through England in 1688. Without James in power, Oates got off with a pardon and a pension.

After ­Charles Darwin published his revolutionary “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, scientists scrambled to find fossilevidence of extinct human ancestors. They sought these so-called “missing links” to fill in the gaps on the timeline of human evolution. When archaeologist Charles Dawson unearthed what he thought was a missing link in 1910, what he really found was one of the biggest hoaxes in history.
The discovery was the Piltdown man, pieces of a skull and jaw with molars located in the Piltdown quarry in Sussex, England. Dawson brought his discovery to prominent paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward, who touted its authenticity to his dying day.
Although the discovery gained world renown, the lie behind Piltdown man slowly and steadily unraveled. In the ensuing decades, other major discoveries suggested Piltdown man didn’t fit in the story of human evolution. By the 1950s, tests revealed that the skull was only 600 years old and the jaw came from an orangutan. Some knowledgeable person apparently manipulated these pieces, including filing down and staining the teeth.
The scientific world had been duped. So who was behind the fraud? Many suspects have surfaced, including Dawson himself. Today, most signs point to Martin A. C. Hinton, a museum volunteer at the time of the discovery. A trunk bearing his initials contained bones that were stained in exactly the same way the Piltdown fossils were. Perhaps he was out to embarrass his boss, Arthur Smith Woodward, who refused to give him a weekly salary.

The Dreyfus Affair
Alfred Dreyfus, the man at the center of the controversy, who denied having sold military secrets to the Germans.
William Vander Weyde/George Eastman House/Getty Images
Like t­he conspiracy invented by Titus Oates, this scandal was built on a lie that dramatically affected national politics and was perpetuated for years by hatred. Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish officer in the French Army in the late 19th century when he was accused of a treasonous crime: selling military secrets to Germany.
After his highly publicized trial, authorities sentenced him to lifeimprisonment on Devils Island, and anti-Semitic groups used him as an example of unpatriotic Jews. However, suspicions arose that the incriminating letters were in fact forged and that a Maj. Esterhazy was the real culprit. When French authorities suppressed these accusations, the novelist Emile Zola stepped up to accuse the army of a vast cover-up.
The scandal exploded into a fight between so-called Dreyfusards, who wanted to see the case reopened, and anti-Dreyfusards, who didn’t. On both sides, the debate became less about Dreyfus’ innocence and more about the principle. During the dramatic 12-year controversy, many violent anti-Semitic riots broke out and political allegiances shifted as Dreyfusards called for reform.
After Maj. Hubert Joseph Henry admitted to forging key documents and committed suicide, a newly elected Cabinet finally reopened the case. The court found Dreyfus guilty again; however, he soon received a pardon from the president. A few years later, a civilian court of appeals found Dreyfus innocent, and he went on to have a distinguished army career and fought with honor in World War I. Meanwhile, the scandal had changed the face of politics in France.

Clinton/Lewinsky Affair
Bill Clinton prepares to admit to the public that his relationship with a White House intern was “not appropriate.”
AP Photo/Greg Gibson
In January 1998, citizen journalist Matt Drudge reported a sensational story tha­t turned out to be true. The president of the United States, Bill Clinton, had an affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. As suspicions mounted, Clinton publicly denied the allegations. As if this lie weren’t big enough, it turned out that Clinton had lied under oath about the affair as well — which was perjury and grounds for impeachment.
Here’s how the truth came out. Paula Jones was an Arkansas state employee when then-governor Clinton allegedly propositioned her. She later sued him for sexual harassment. In an effort to prove that Clinton had a pattern of such behavior, lawyers set out to expose his sexual affairs. They found Linda Tripp, a former White House secretary and confidant of Lewinsky. Tripp recorded telephone conversations in which Lewinsky talked of her affair with Clinton. Lawyers then probed Clinton with specific questions and cornered him into denying the affair under oath.
During the highly publicized scandal, prosecutor Kenneth Starr subpoenaed Clinton, who finally admitted to the relationship. Based on Starr’s report, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton for not only perjury but obstruction of justice. Despite the scandal, Clinton maintained relatively high approval ratings from the American public, and the Senate acquitted him of the charges. However, in the eyes of many Americans, his legacy remained tarnished.

President Richard Nixon answers questions about the Watergate scandal.
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images
Two decades before the Clinton scandal, another U.S. president was caught in a web of lies, and the controversy had devastating effects on the country as a whole.
In the summer before President Richard Nixon’s successful re-election to a second term, five men were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, housed in the Watergate Hotel. As details emerged over the next year, it became clear that officials close to Nixon gave the orders to the burglars, perhaps to plant wiretaps on the phones there. The question soon became about whether Nixon knew of, covered up or even ordered the break-in.
In response to mounting suspicions, Nixon denied allegations that he knew anything. In front of 400 Associated Press editors, famously proclaimed, “I am not a crook.” He was talking about whether he had ever profited from public service, but that one quote came to represent his entire political career.
It was a lie that came back to haunt him. When it was revealed that private White House conversations about the matter were recorded, the investigative committee subpoenaed the tapes. Nixon’s refusal on the basis of “executive privilege” brought the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that he had to relinquish the tapes.
The tapes were exactly the smoking gun needed to implicate Nixon in the cover-up of the scandal. They revealed that he obviously knew more about the matter than he claimed. Upon the initiation of impeachment proceedings, Nixon gave up and resigned from office. The scandal left a lasting scar on the American political scene and helped usher Washington outsider Jimmy Carter into the presidency a few years later.

The Big Lie: Nazi Propaganda
This piece of Nazi Propaganda says it all. For those who can’t read German, it translates to “He is to blame for the war!”
By the time Nazism arose in Germany in the 1930s, anti-Semitism was nothing new — not by a long shot. The J­ewish people had suffered a long history of prejudice and persecution. And although Nazis perpetuated centuries-old lies, this time those lies would have their most devastating effects. Like never before, anti-Semitism was manifested in a sweeping national policy known as “the Final Solution,” which sought to eliminate Jews from the face of the Earth.
To accomplish this, Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, launched a massive campaign to convince the German people that the Jews were their enemies. Having taken over the press, they spread lies blaming Jews for all of Germany’s problems, including the loss of World War I. One outrageous lie dating back to the Middle Ages claimed that Jews engaged in the ritual killings of Christian children and used their blood in the unleavened bread eaten at Passover [source: Landau].
Using Jews as the scapegoat, Hitler and his cronies orchestrated what they called “the big lie.” This theory states that no matter how big the lie is (or more precisely, because it’s so big), people will believe it if you repeat it enough. Everyone tells small lies, Hitler reasoned, but few have the guts to tell colossal lies [source: Hoffer]. Because a big lie is so unlikely, people will come to accept it.
This theory helps us understand so many of the lies throughout history. Although we’ve barely scratched the surface of all those lies that deserve (dis)honorable mentions, you can satiate your historical curiosity by browsing the lists on the next page.

Top 10 American Political Dynasties

Image Gallery: Election Memorabilia
Image Gallery: Election Memorabilia
This photo offers a hint at the most successful political dynasty in the modern United States. See election memorabilia pictures.
 It took just about as much time for the ink to dry on the Declaration of Independence as it did for American politics to become another type of family business. What are 10 of the most successful political dynasties?
In American politics, “dynasty” is a dirty word. The Founding Fathers, after all, went on record as wholeheartedly objecting to power flowing through blood rather than ballot, declaring in the U.S. Constitution that “no title of nobility shall be granted by the United States.” The narrative of one of the country’s most prominent political families, the Kennedys, even avoids the dreaded d-word. Rather than referring to the New England clan as a dynasty, it’s romantically painted as Camelot.
In reality, however, it took just about as much time for the ink to dry on the Declaration of Independence as it did for American politics to become another type of family business. In 1848, for example, more than 16 percent of congressional seats were filled by someone whose relative had previously held the position [source: Kieley]. Moreover, a 2006 study found that Congress members who serve more than one term have a 40 percent chance of someone in their family later ending up in Congress [source:Alexander]. That doesn’t imply that these family trees are full of rotten apples, but they may cultivate relationships and connections that can help siblings, cousins and in-laws win elections as with any successful business operation.
The following American dynasties certainly understood how to pool their resources and convert their last names into impressive and long-lasting political brands.
Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo celebrates with Andrew Cuomo, who took over the same seat on Jan. 1, 2011.
Michael Nagle/Getty Images
Technically, political power should run through a family for at least three generations in order to qualify as a dynasty, but New York’s Democratic Cuomos get a pass since patriarch Mario was a first-generation American [source: Hess]. Son of an immigrant Italian grocer, Mario Cuomo grew up in Queens and eventually became New York governor in 1983. His oldest son, Andrew, served as Gov. Cuomo’s political director until the senior politician was defeated at the polls in 1994.
The experience likely came in handy when Andrew decided to run for governor like his father, especially considering he won his 2010 election. And speaking of dynasties, a few years prior in 2003, Andrew legally cut ties with the Kennedy dynasty when his marriage to Kerry Kennedy dissolved. The younger Cuomo eventually may supersede his dad’s political legacy since he’s considering making a run for the White House in 2016 [source: Hartmann]. And who leaked that possibility to the press? Doting dad Mario, naturally.
Richard M. Daley was the longest-serving mayor in Chicago history.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
In December 2010, Richard M. Daley became Chicago’s longest-serving mayor, having led the city since 1989. He claimed the title from his father, Richard J. Daley, who governed the Midwestern city from 1955 to his 1976 death [source: MSNBC]. Although there were a handful of mayors elected to office between the father and son, the Daleys ran Chicago for a total of 43 years, in many ways molding the Windy City into its modern, bustling status [source: Reiss]. Upon the younger Daley’s announcement that he wouldn’t seek reelection for a seventh term, news headlines hailed the “end of a dynasty.”
The other Daley son, William M. Daley, is also instrumental in government. When former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel stepped down from the Obama administration to snag the Chicago mayoral seat vacated by Richard M. Daley, William headed to Washington, D.C., to take his place.
Nelson Rockefeller had hoped to become president but had to settle for the vice presidency under Gerald Ford.
Keystone/Getty Images
The Rockefellers didn’t make their name in politics, but the vast fortune John D. Rockefeller amassed with his Standard Oil Company would help bankroll future family members’ elections [source: Hess]. The elder Rockefeller, in fact, had no interest in politics, and his only son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., was far more interested in investing wealth back into society rather than influencing people through political office. Nevertheless, Rockefeller’s marriage to Abby Aldrich, daughter of a Rhode Island senator, was portrayed as a politically savvy union.
John and Abby’s son, Nelson Rockefeller, shared a birthday with his prestigious grandfather and appeared to have inherited his ambition from an early age [source: PBS]. In 1959, Nelson Rockefeller became the Republican governorof New York following a characteristically well-funded campaign. He would never reach his goal of climbing his way to the Oval Office, however. In 1974, following the resignation of President Nixon, Gerald Ford appointed Rockefeller his vice president but abandoned Rockefeller when reelection rolled around.
Great-grandson Jay Rockefeller served two terms as governor of West Virginia. After that, he was elected to the U.S. Senate and, as of 2012, has been reelected four times.
William Howard Taft was much prouder of his appointment to the Supreme Court than winning the presidency.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Just because political ambition runs in a family doesn’t mean those expected to campaign necessarily share common dreams of electoral glory. Such was the case for President William Howard Taft, who came from a prominent Cincinnati family and later referred to his 1908 White House race as “one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life” [source:Beschloss and Sidey]. The portly lawyer-turned-president served one term, lost reelection and was later appointed Chief Justice of the United States by President Harding in 1920.
Unlike his reluctantly political father, Robert A. Taft was far more intent on reaching the Oval Office. The Ohio leader served as a U.S. senator and unsuccessfully put his name in the hat for the Republican nomination for president three separate times [source: U.S. Senate]. Years later, third-generation Robert Taft Jr. also won a seat in the Ohio state legislature before moving on to Congress. Most recently in 2005, however, former Ohio Governor Bob Taft — great-grandson of William Howard and son of Robert Taft Jr. — sullied the family reputation when he was criminally charged with failing to report gifts and paid outings he received in office [source: Cole].
The Frelinghuysen political dynasty stretches back to the 18th century with Frederick Frelinghuysen.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
In 1720, evangelist Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen arrived in colonial New Jersey from Germany, and his family would remain in the eventual Garden State for generations to come. The Frelinghuysen clan first became involved in U.S. politics way back in 1793 when Theordorus’ grandson Frederick won a Senate seat after leading American troops in the Revolutionary War and serving in the 1779 Continental Congress [source:Brown]. Since then, seven generations of Frelinghuysens have represented New Jersey on the state and federal level [source:Kitchin]. The late Peter Frelinghuysen, for instance, completed 11 terms as a U.S. Congressman, legislating from 1953 to 1975; son Rodney Frelinghuysen has represented the same congressional district as his father since 1995.
Although the Frelinghuysen line may not roll off the tongue or attract as much nationwide prestige as the Bushes and Clintons, it’s certainly carries a cachet at home. Schools, streets, a township and multiple buildings around the state are named after the original New Jersey natives [source: Kitchin].
In the 1892 presidential election, Benjamin Harrison was defeated by Grover Cleveland, the former incumbent he had beaten in the 1888 race.
Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images
Like the Frelinghuysens of New Jersey, the Harrison family got its start in American politics during the nation’s infancy. The first Harrison served in Congress in 1793, and six more would go on to claim seats in a total 20 congressional sessions [source: Bó, Bó and Snyder]. The Harrisons also enjoy the rare distinction of sending not one, but two, of its bloodline to the White House. Former Virginia Governor William Henry Harrison became the ninth U.S. president in 1841, but his tenure lasted only 32 days since he died from a cold that developed into fatal pneumonia.
After working as an Indiana senator, grandson Benjamin Harrison beat out incumbent Grover Cleveland in 1888. Known as “Little Ben” for his short stature, the second Harrison presidency only lasted a single term, due in large part to a third-party challenge from Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party. In the race for reelection, the formerly defeated Democrat Grover Cleveland came back around and reclaimed victory in 1892 [source: Beschloss and Sidey].
Franklin D. Roosevelt with Eleanor and their son, Elliott, in 1932, the year he won his first presidential election.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Many political dynasties travel through immediate families, often flowing from father to son to grandson, or from husband to wife. The Roosevelt connection was much more diluted but nevertheless pivotal in the nation’s history. In 1900, Theodore Roosevelt won the vice presidency on William McKinley’s presidential ticket, and took over executive reins himself when McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in September 1901 [source: Miller]. Stepping down from office in 1909, Roosevelt got the political itch once again and fruitlessly ran once more in 1912 on the third party Progressive ticketnicknamed the Bull Moose Party.
Meanwhile, Theodore Roosevelt’s niece Eleanor married his fifth cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1905. After a term as governor of New York, FDR became president in 1932 and would return to office three more times, longer than anyone else in American history. Not long into his fourth term, FDR died, leaving some to speculate that Eleanor Roosevelt would pick up the political torch, but she declined the Democratic nomination for Senate [source: Hess]. Two of the Roosevelt sons, James and Frank, later were elected to Congress representing California and New York, respectively, but their political careers wouldn’t progress beyond the House of Representatives.
John Quincy Adams had a more distinguished post-presidential career than the time that he served in office.
Stock Montage/Getty Images
The Adams have been called “America’s first dynasty,” although the family’s political heft would peak and fade out prior to the 20th century. Founding Father John Adams worked his way up from a humble upbringing and deftly wheeled and dealt with France and England at the close of the tumultuousAmerican Revolution. But John Adams’ vice presidency was considered a lackluster affair, second only to his single term as president [source: Shesol].
The New England family had a chance to burnish its presidential legacy when the oldest son, John Quincy Adams, took office in 1825. But he seemed to have inherited his dad’s poor leadership skills, and the sixth president’s performance was considered as bad as that of the second. Afterward, however, the younger Adams served admirably in Congress as a staunch abolitionist [source: Shesol]. Great-great-grandson Charles Francis Adams III marked the last in the family line to pursue public office, eventually being selected by President Herbert Hoover for Secretary of the Navy [source: Hess].
Joseph P. Kennedy and his expansive brood.
Bachrach/Getty Images
Initially, John F. Kennedy wasn’t supposed to be the son destined to become President. Wealthy financier Joseph P. Kennedy had planned to bankroll the future campaign of Joe Kennedy, the oldest of his four boys, but those patriarchal designs were dashed when the 29-year-old pilot was killed in a plane crash over the English Channel [source: Reuters]. In the face of that tragedy, the political buck was passed down to the next-oldest son, John, leaving U.S. Attorney General for Robert and a Massachusetts Senate seat for the youngest, Edward [source: Romano].
With the help of the Kennedy fortune, John and Robert both fulfilled their father’s dream but didn’t survive long enough to complete their legendary role. John was assassinated in 1963 while president, and Robert was assassinated in 1968 while seeking the Democraticpresidential nomination. Edward Kennedy unsuccessfully challenged Jimmy Carter for the Democratic ticket in 1980. Spending the rest of his career in the U.S. Senate, the so-called “Liberal Lion” nevertheless carved out a Congressional record as one of its most influential members and its fourth-longest serving legislator (1962 to 2009) [source: U.S. Senate].
In 2011, when Edward Kennedy’s son Patrick retired from his post as a U.S. Representative of Rhode Island, it signaled the end — or at least a distinct lull — of the Kennedy political dynasty. For the first time since 1947, no Kennedy went to work in the U.S. Capitol.
Before the Bush men were governors and presidents.
Getty Images
Americans may not romanticize the Bush family in the same legendary manner ascribed to the Kennedys, but they arguably are the most successful political dynasty of the 20th century. In 1952, Prescott Bush was voted in as a senator from Connecticut, and his son, George H.W. Bush moved down to Texas and followed in his father’s footsteps winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives [source: Beschloss and Sidey]. In 1980, newly elected President Ronald Reagan kicked off the first of two terms with Bush as his vice president. Boosted by the popularity of the Reagan administration, Republican Bush succeeded the former Commander-in-Chief in 1988, but lost to Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992. Meanwhile, Prescott’s grandsons George W. and Jeb were paving their own political inroads toward becoming governors of Texas and Florida, respectively.
In 2000, in a historically close election that hinged on fewer than 600 votes in Florida, George W. Bush reignited the dynasty with his narrow victory. When George W. Bush reached his term limit in 2008, he and his father had occupied the first or second most powerful positions in the U.S. government for 20 out of the previous 28 years. Some suspected that younger brother Jeb might court the 2008 Republican nomination, but he demurred. And with the 2016 elections and beyond already looming on the horizon, another family member has surfaced as someone to keep an eye on: George P. Bush, Jeb’s son who reportedly has been groomed for the political stage from a young age [source: Ball].

Author’s Note: Top 10 American Political Dynasties

As much as America adheres to a no-royalty policy, it’s mighty interesting to notice just how much power has tended to run in families (not to mention the stateside excitement with William and Kate’s royal wedding, but that’s another article). From the get-go in the United States, politics has been treated like another business enterprise in many ways, and from that perspective it makes sense that certain families would take to it and build their empires. Just as the retail industry has the Walton family, for instance, Republican politics has the Bush family. Political dynasties also tend to follow common patterns of staking out a geographical area (Massachusetts for the Kennedys; New York for the Cuomos) and concentrating influence to lay a foundation to seek out the pivotal roles — i.e., governorships, Senate seats — that often pave the way to the White House.
Also, there are some family names that have been left off the list. That’s right; the U.S. has so many political dynasties to choose from, you can’t boil them all down to a 10-point list.