A drive through the rolling hills of New Vernon takes you past bucolic landscapes, Colonial-era structures, and a tawny historical marker for Frelinghuysen Fields, 100 acres of open meadow conserved in perpetuity ten years ago.
Just across the road, the man who donated that acreage to the Harding Land Trust, former U.S. Rep. Peter Hood Ballantine Frelinghuysen Jr., 93, lives in a home where the walls are lined with family portraits and historical maps. His residence there dates to 1948, but his family’s place in Garden State history spans eleven generations—reaching back seven generations to eighteenth-century theologian Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen, and forward three generations to Peter’s progeny: five children, thirteen grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.
Peter’s middle child, Rodney Frelinghuysen, currently represents New Jersey’s 11th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Rodney, 63, has been elected to Congress eight times, approaching the eleven terms served by his father. “We compare notes often,” says Rodney, “and every day when I’m home, I find some reason to talk with him.”
In most circumstances, this would be a story about the political successes of a father and son with a bona fide New Jersey pedigree. But the collective 36 years that Peter and Rodney have worked in Congress are just a fraction of the service of the Frelinghuysen family—a resume that earned it the number seven spot on the Washington Post’s “America’s Top Dynasty” scorecard in September, just behind the Adams family (number five) and the Bush family (number six).
The Frelinghuysen family tree planted itself in U.S. soil when Theodorus emigrated from Germany to the Raritan Valley in the British colony of New Jersey in 1720, evangelizing as a Dutch-Reformed minister during the period of religious fervor known as the Great Awakening. His grandson, Frederick Frelinghuysen, was commissioned major general in 1794 during the Whiskey Rebellion. He also served as a delegate from New Jersey to the Continental Congress of 1779, a member of the state legislature, a U.S. senator, and U.S. district attorney for New Jersey.
Two generations later, Frederick Theodore Frelinghuysen—Peter’s great-grandfather—was the state’s attorney general, a U.S. senator, and the U.S. secretary of state. (Frederick Theodore’s uncle and adoptive father, Theodore, was a U.S. senator, captain of the Volunteer Militia in the War of 1812, and the state attorney general, among other things.) Mix in a cousin—Joseph Sherman Frelinghuysen—who was also a U.S. senator and served as interim governor of the state, and a connection by marriage to Henry Cabot Lodge, along with generations of students and administrators at Princeton and Rutgers universities, and you have the ultimate Garden State dynasty.
That legacy of service has earned the Frelinghuysen family naming rights that go beyond just a roadside historical marker. Frelinghuysen Township in Warren County; Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morristown; a stretch of Route 27 called Frelinghuysen Avenue in Newark; and Frelinghuysen residence hall and Frelinghuysen Road at Rutgers are all linked to the family. Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morristown was established by Peter’s aunt Matilda Frelinghuysen on family property.
But this rich history is not exactly what drew Rodney into politics. “I think, in large part, it was because of my father,” Rodney says. “It doesn’t matter how old I get, I will always be my father’s child.”
Rodney had barely started elementary school when Peter was first recruited into the political scene in 1952, “coming in with Eisenhower” as a 36-year-old congressman the following year. “I knew back when I was a child that I wanted to do what my father did,” Rodney says. “I was the child who volunteered to go with him whenever he was going to a picnic or a parade.”
Rodney was 6 when the family moved to Robert Todd Lincoln’s house in Washington D.C. “It changed his whole life,” Peter says. For the next 22 years, the Frelinghuysens split their time between their New Jersey base and their home in the nation’s capital. Rodney tagged along with his father at congressional events and campaign stops, getting to know some of the country’s top officials on a first-name basis. “It was fun,” Rodney says. “And I had a full appreciation for what it was like to gear up every two years for the election.”
For Peter, the road to the capital was less obvious. “I didn’t feel called,” he says. His twin brother, Henry, was long considered the politically active sibling, but when the seat of what was then New Jersey’s 5th congressional district was to be vacated, Peter, a World War II Navy veteran who settled close to home in northern New Jersey, was recruited to run. “I expected him to have the political life, and I ended up with it,” he says. “I had nothing but a name.” (Henry, who died in 1994, focused his life on philanthropy and horse breeding.)
Despite the fact that neither he nor his wife—who passed away thirteen years ago after 56 years of marriage—had planned for a political lifestyle, Peter continued to get re-elected before he retired amid the Watergate turmoil in 1975. During that time, he worked to secure earmarks for his district. “People are critical, but I’m in favor of them,” he says. “They should be advertised as such, but they all have a function.” His proudest achievement, though, was protecting the Great Swamp from a Port of New York Authority plan to construct another major airport. “That was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me,” he says.
Vietnam, on the other hand, was “the most discouraging thing,” in part because Rodney was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in combat. “It was difficult to sit there and listen to [Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara,” he says. Indeed, Peter was quoted as saying after the invasion of Laos, “Most Americans—myself included—have come to feel that this war has gone on too long.”
Keeping a diary was one lesson that Peter passed along to Rodney. “War can be such a complicated thing,” Peter says. “It’s important to write down why you feel the way you feel and why you vote the way you vote. Because it’s easy to forget.”
Rodney—a Republican like his father—takes great pride in his father’s handling of the Vietnam situation amid the chaos of the era. “He never broadcast the fact that I was over there,” he says. “Many of my father’s constituents had no idea.” And Rodney’s own experience, he says, gives him an appreciation for the young people serving overseas today, and for the families who “worry themselves sick” back at home.
With fourteen years in Congress—representing Morris County and parts of Somerset, Essex, Sussex, and Passaic counties—Rodney has earned seniority on several governing bodies, including the House Appropriations Committee, the House Defense Subcommittee, the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, and the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel. “I really like what I’m doing,” he says. “My job is to look out for New Jersey.”
A self-described “fiscal conservative with a moderate stance on social issues” who, like his father, advocates for historical and open-space preservation, Rodney was first elected with 71 percent of the vote, and his electorate share has never fallen below 62 percent. He credits his staff with those numbers (“they make me look very good”), citing constituent services that accomplish little things—such as bringing a soldier home from Iraq to attend his mother’s funeral, nominating young men and women to attend service academies, or helping people with the immigration process—that are major acts for those he helps. “I learned from my father that there’s nothing more important than that,” he says. “Those things make the job worthwhile.”
He comes home every weekend (his wife of 29 years, Virginia, continued to raise their two daughters at home in Harding Township after his election to Congress), and visits 90 schools each year. “My job is to put a human face on government for these kids,” he says. On those trips home, he also checks in with his father. “Rodney bounces ideas off of me,” says Peter, “and I say rude things about some of his colleagues.”
Peter is appalled by the partisan nature of Washington today. “When I was in Congress, there was not this bitterness,” he says. “I hate to see it.” His long-time friendships include members of the Roosevelt and Kennedy families (FDR was an usher at his parents’ wedding) as well as the Ford and McCain families (he recently reconnected with Roberta McCain, John’s 97-year-old mother).
Rodney, who says he’s optimistic by nature, thinks today’s atmosphere is nothing compared with the vitriol of the past, citing, as few current congressmen can, an ancestor’s vote to censure President Andrew Jackson. Still, when he talks of his daughters—Louisine, 25, and Sarah, 23—he says they are “politically astute, but smart enough not to run themselves.”
Peter and Rodney say they regret that the Frelinghuysen women get lost in the shuffle. “None of the women sought office, but none of the men—my forebears—would have been anything without the activities and support of their wives,” Rodney says. “It’s a discouraging part of history that the women aren’t as well documented.”
With two girls, the Frelinghuysen name is likely to go no further in Rodney’s line, but there are countless cousins in the family. A depiction of the family tree in Peter’s home illustrates the widespread descendents of Theodorus (who was the subject of Peter’s thesis at Princeton). Peter points out that the line almost ended, though Theodorus had five sons and two daughters. Only his son John had a son, Frederick, before dying young. “We almost expired at the very beginning,” he says.
Instead, the Frelinghuysens have become one of New Jersey’s—and America’s—longest-serving political families. Rodney will be seeking his ninth term next year, and Peter continues to read up on current events from his home overlooking Frelinghuysen Fields in New Vernon, receiving regular visits from his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. “It’s wonderful,” he says. “They watch over me, but not so closely.”
Jessica Kitchin is a former associate editor of New Jersey Monthly.Click here to leave a comment