Modern biographical histories no longer look at the broader picture when they examine the early history of their subjects. It is no longer fashionable, as it once was, for new biographies of great men to come with lengthy initial chapters about their forebears or pull out papers at the back cover with elaborate genealogies. Short notes on the parents with perhaps a foray out to the grandparents are deemed to suffice. This is unfortunate; I would contend that it is extremely useful – and revealing – to be able to fit our subjects into a wider familial landscape.
Genealogy is not a tool much used by “serious” historians most of whom treat it as the bastard child of Astrology and trainspotting. Instead the field is left to the amateur end of the spectrum, to the small family historians tracing farmers back to the old country, or finding cousins in Canada. This is unfortunate – looking at social groups through the lens of genealogy will reveal patterns and structures not immediately obvious from other approaches. As with the hospital geneticist we can link those who are otherwise hidden from general view.
If the genealogies of most ordinary families were drawn out and written up on the back of a roll of wall-paper, as so many are, most would be traceable for the period of the existence of the United States. Most too, would be fairly extensive and if shown to strangers or interested members of the family would happily roll out across the length of the living-room floor or down your hall. The family tree of the Presidents of the United States however could rest comfortably on your sofa or can be written up as the end papers of a book.
Of these 43 presidents I have found that no less than 27 are related to other presidents by blood, marriage or adoption. This is not something we see only in the early days of the Union when a small tightly knit population coupled with the obvious difficulties of travel would lead one to suppose a greater interconnection of elite families. We can see this trend continuing on, up to, and throughout the twentieth century so that by the early twenty-first century even after unprecedented levels of immigration by such disparate groups as Germans, Irish, Jews, Scandinavians, Hispanics and Armenians not to mention the black Americans of slave origin -it is surprising to find that Calvin Coolidge is as near as third cousin to John Adams or that Herbert Hoover is fourth cousin to Franklin Pierce. Carter and Hoover, usually considered the archetypical outsiders, are still sixth cousins. Despite the humorist’s jibes about peanut farming, man of the peoples Jimmy Carter’s ancestry is as plantation blue as any. In today’s United States of 300 million people George W Bush was and is related to 22 previous presidents and is as close as fourth cousin to James Garfield, president in 1881.
So it was at the very least “interesting” that in last year’s election campaign then Senator Obama (that most unlikely of oligarch candidates), saw fit to have it made public that he too had a descent from, of all people President Jefferson!
Copyright David Macadam 2010