The children of Paul Emery Washington think of their father as an unpretentious, generous guy who climbed the corporate ladder to become regional manager at CertainTeed manufacturing, a building-supply company. Now 82, he takes care of his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, while spending time on the San Antonio, Texas, property that he shares with his children. "I think he would've been a great king," says son Bill Washington—a statement, we admit, that might seem a little odd. Except that Paul Emery Washington is a descendant of George Washington, our nation's first president and perhaps the only man in history who turned down the position of monarch.
Had George Washington ascended to the throne, Paul Emery Washington (Joe Six-pack, incarnate) could now go by King Paul, the first. Lore has it that President Washington was so well liked after his Revolutionary victory that a group of citizens frustrated with the Continental Congress floated the idea of a coup-d'etat and the installation of King George and the creation of an American monarchy. But Washington, who believed that anyone (anyone!) might make for a good leader, staunched the idea and eventually relinquished his power as commander-in-chief.
Since then, genealogists have been pondering the possibilities had President Washington been a bit more power-hungry. As early as 1908, newspapers published accounts of history buffs who worked their way through the Washington family tree using rules of succession to determine the rightful heir to the theoretical American throne. But without the Internet, branches of the Washington tree would be lost in Ohio, say, or forgotten by lineage sleuths who couldn't quite decipher a family tree made complicated because Washington himself didn't have any children.
But while brainstorming ideas for their election-themed coverage, Ancestry.comturned to their Chief Family Historian, Megan Smolenyak, for an answer to the historical mystery. Smolenyak first turned to Google where she figured out that, because kinship rules vary by country and because Washington was childless, there were four possible kings (or queens) among the nearly 8,000 descendants of Washington who are alive today. Of the 200 men that carry the Washington name, though, Paul Emery is the end result of two lines—a very rare possibility that makes him the likely heir.
That's a concept that Paul would rather not think about. "I doubt if I'd be a very good king," he says. "We've done so well as a country without a king, so I think George made the best decision." His family, which includes three sons and one daughter, are fifth-generation descendants of George's oldest brother, Samuel. But Paul would've been the ninth or tenth king of America depending on which of the lines you follow. "A guy would get the crown and then live forever, or have no children, or just have a girl and that would send the crown careening across the family tree," Smolenyak says of the lineage, which she spent a month whittling down using a process of elimination, usually while looking at genealogical software on two computer monitors, often while singing Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust."
She concluded that leadership would have passed not to men named Abraham or Teddy but to those named Lee, Felix or Frank. "We would have had a King named Spot, how cool is that?" Smolenyak muses of the son who would've fallen between King Bushrod, the first, and Bushrod II. And term limits? Not so much: King Larry would have been in power from 1935 to 1997, she says.
Many historians question the legitimacy of the King George myth, especially since most royals endure stricter marriage restrictions than the ones faced by today's Washingtons. And even among Paul's own children, there is varying skepticism. Richard, the eldest heir, has little interest in his supposed birthright while his younger brother, Bill, fills the upstairs floor of his home with George Washington memorabilia—paintings, coins, tobacco tins—and claims membership in the Sons of the American Revolution. He's also visited ancestral homes in Mount Vernon and manses in England where the British Washingtons lived. "With my brother, there's always that jealousy thing involved," the second heir says. "I go out and do the parades—but he's still got the claim." Paul Emery Washington's family has known for some time that they are descendants of America's first president, but Ancestry.com has used the latest technology to make a definitive case for Paul being the "lost king."
And though he isn't the crown prince, Bill Washington still wouldn't mind if dad was King. "It couldn't be much worse. I thought we already had a monarchy?" he asks of the current administration before describing himself as an Obama-supporting Democrat. "Our government has gotten away from everyday people serving and then stepping down—like [George Washington] wanted."
But perhaps the wisest thing that Bill has learned from studying his own hypothetically royal family is that you have to watch what you say around the "king." Nearly all of his relatives, including his father, are Republican supporters who appreciate the legacy of George W. Bush and will probably vote for the McCain/Palin ticket. And recently, when Bill ordered a copy of "The Tudors," a television show about Henry VIII, he realized the consequences for his personal dissension. "I don't think I'd be a very good subject," he says, "I would have my head chopped off a long time ago." So for Bill Washington's sake, God save the president.