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It Is Very American to Ask if the Presidency Should Be Passed Between Entitled Families

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Reprinted from The Nation


When Thomas Paine called America into revolt against the British Crown with Common Sense, he explained at great length that there was nothing divine -- nor minimally commendable -- about the supposed "divine right of kings." Warning that "a King hath little more to do than to make war and give away places (grants of power and wealth to favored families)," Paine observed: "Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived."

After outlining the many arguments against dividing society into kings and subjects, however, Paine wrote of an even more unsettling arrangement.

"To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity," he wrote. "For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and tho' himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them."

The United States has wisely eschewed formal monarchy. But it has, rather too frequently, accepted a dynastic politics that rests power in particular families. This has always been troublesome for those who take seriously the promise of an American experiment founded on the premise that all men -- and women -- are created equal.

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