I may be Irish but I’m not stupid.” Umm not my idea of how to endear oneself to an Irish supporting fund raiser on St Patrick’s Day but probably mild stuff for Joe.
Biden has long claimed that he is Irish in descent. A claim which might be almost guaranteed to drum up votes by the bucket from the democratic Irish-American electorate, and don’t we all know by now that story of his priggish old mother choosing to sleep on the floor rather than a bed the Queen had slept in? But just how Irish is Joe? And how much does the Oirish deflect from some more interesting family roots?
Certainly of his sixteen great-great-grand parents ten are indeed Irish with Blewitts from County Mayo and Finnegans from County Louth. All eight great-grand parents on his mother’s side were Irish. All good emigrating 19th century Irish stock. And all burnishing that Kennedy-esq Catholic mystic Camelot schtick so necessary to act as a bridge to Hispanic Catholics.
But like so many American politicians in this study Joe Biden has links far deeper into America’s roots than these. One’s he is a deal less keen we should look at. One’s like great-great-great-grandfather Allan Robanett had been born in Sussex travelling to Pennsylvania in the late 1600’s thus being dastardly English and worse, who was connected to Varina Anne Banks Howell the wife of the Confederate President Jefferson Davis. ,
The last campaign season was dominated by America’s racial history. In June, when the topic was at its most toxic, it was claimed a false internet meme was being circulated widely stating that a Biden ancestor, Joseph J. Biden, owned slaves and fought for the Confederacy. At the time, there was not yet an authoritative study of Biden’s paternal ancestry available to the public, so it was left to mainstream fact-checkers to investigate the meme. One had been commissioned by Biden back in 2004 but never released or whose publishing had been sidelined for who knows why. USA Today, and the fact-checking sites Politifact and Snopes, all concluded that the meme’s claim was unfounded and that the photo supposedly showing a Biden forebear was of some other man. In passing, the Snopes article mentions the possibility that Biden was indeed descended from the Maryland Robinettes, who had indeed enslaved people. The matter looked like it had been put to bed.
However come August, the fact-checking website followed up again. This time it evaluated evidence submitted by a reader that Biden’s 3rd great-grandfather ancestor Thomas Randle indeed enslaved a person in Maryland in 1850, according to census records there as well as a slave schedule. Snopes now found the evidence compelling that the Biden forebear and the man listed as owner on the slave schedule were one and the same, but it rated the claim “unproven.” Other mainstream sources of information did not pursue the question during the election. Funny that. What if it had been Trump?
It was not until after Biden won the presidency that Alex Bannerman a West Virginian genealogist and Gary Boyd Roberts created their genealogy for the winter 2021 issues of American Ancestry, allowing Bannerman — who is now at work on a genealogy of First Lady Jill Biden — to confirm what some people online had already been claiming about Thomas Randle and the Robinettes. Though they sought to soften the findings by saying “not a lot of ancestors and not a lot of slaves”. Work which may feature in Politico’s Ben Schreckinger’s forthcoming “The Bidens; Inside the First Families Fifty Year Rise to Power”.
So in the end, Biden was spared the difficulty of explaining away his ancestry and it did not become part of the firestorm of slave history and ongoing race divides that so characterised the election season. Biden by concentrating press and public to the Irish side of his family story subtly managed the public perception of his background in a way that maximized his appeal.
Or it could just be the luck of the Irish.
Copyright David Macadam 2022