- Historic Sites
“We Are All Descended From Grandfathers!”
and… …a glimpse at the grandfathers of the candidates exhibits the wonderful diversity of American life
June 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 4
In this country there are no classes in the British sense of that word, no impassable barriers of caste.… Our society resembles rather the waves of the ocean, whose every drop may move freely among its fellows, and may rise toward the light until it flashes on the crest of the highest wave.
—James A. Garfield, 1873
In this country there are no classes in the British sense of that word, no impassable barriers of caste.… Our society resembles rather the waves of the ocean, whose every drop may move freely among its fellows, and may rise toward the light until it flashes on the crest of the highest wave.
—James A. Garfield, 1873
The past never repeats itself, goes the truism, but knowing something about it is wonderfully useful, just the same, when you are contemplating the present. It helps, for one thing, if one wants to get a little beyond the genial Babbittry expressed in the late Will Rogers’ familiar remark that all he knew was what he read in the newspapers.
We were reminded of the utility of a background in history not very long ago, when the then Earl of Home was unexpectedly chosen as Prime Minister of Great Britain and the newspapers carried some particularly acidulous comments by Harold Wilson, the Labour party leader who hopes to unseat him. How could any modern country, Mr. Wilson asked with asperity, pick as its political head such a scion of sheltered aristocracy? On he went, scoffing at wealthy families, fine schools—clearly the wrong sources from which a parliamentary democracy should pick a Prime Minister—until suddenly we remembered where we had heard all this before. It was the old log-cabin speech, echoing back over the decades from our own class-conscious past; still alive, like so many other quaint political relics, in England. What caps the joke, of course, is that Mr. Wilson, should he become Prime Minister, will have many dealings with the White House—for whose occupancy a number of millionaires are now vigorously contending. Indeed, most of the popularly known candidates, declared or not, are wealthy men, and four of the seven discussed here are sons and grandsons of rich and powerful ancestors.
It sometimes takes a little nudge, even an unintentional one like this, and from an outside source, before we ourselves can see the changes the republic has undergone. The day is past when log-cabin birth and the marks of early struggle could be a paramount political asset in the United States. That tradition, which was really a prejudice, was decently laid away during the long Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, as that well-to-do Knickerbocker squire buried one poor-boy-made-good after another. When the final handful of earth was dropped on the casket in 1960—a wealthy Kennedy defeating a poor Nixon—the shape of a new tradition began to emerge, one which greatly enlarges the field for the Presidency as far as practical eligibility is concerned. If some obvious handicaps remain, wealth and social position—or the lack of them—are no longer barriers. Neither is religion, save perhaps for the total lack of any at all. Jf any proof were needed of all the change that has crept up on us, it can be found in the backgrounds of the leading candidates this year. Nor could anything be more revealing than to turn back the pages of their family histories and see what these families were doing half a century or more ago, at a time when the present candidates were either little boys or, indeed, unborn; a time when the West was still raw, when titans of industry held great power in the East, and when the much-heralded melting pot had scarcely begun its work.
Leaving the 1964 candidates to the press (and the conventions and electorate), we have decided, as perhaps befits AMERICAN HERITAGE, to look into the grandfathers. What gulfs yawn between these men as the years roll back! Consider the Mormon elder Miles P. Romney and his enormous family, fleeing the United States and its “oppressive” laws against polygamy at the same time that the Standard Oil king, John D. Rockefeller, untroubled by legal restraint, stands astride his great and powerful trust. Consider—in that same long-ago time—an elegant Boston Brahmin, Henry Cabot Lodge, writing history in his study while another grandfather-to-be, Sam Ealy Johnson of Texas, rides along with a cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail. Yet all the stories eventually intersect, and end in one ambition.
We might, to be sure, have sketched in other grandfathers—for example, Charles William Hatfield, who moved west as a boy of six in 1859, and became, like his father and his son, a blacksmith; now his grandson Mark is governor of Oregon. It would be tempting, also, to take up Dr. Douglas Morton of Farmville, Virginia, who moved west to practice at Louisville, Kentucky, and there married Jane Lewis Davis, the niece of Lincoln’s old friend and Attorney General, James Speed. Through her, Senator Thruston B. Morton is descended from John Walker, the first white man (even before Boone) to build a cabin west of the Alleghenies. The Senator’s other grandfather, S. Thruston Ballard, who married a lady with the delightful name of Sunshine Harris, was once lieutenant governor of Kentucky. But for an assassin’s bullet, we would also be considering John F. Fitzgerald, the gregarious and sometimes outrageous Boston Irish politician, loud singer of “Sweet Adeline” and grand-sire, perhaps, of other candidates yet to come.
One or more of all these candidates, announced or not, may well have completely withdrawn by the time these words appear in print, or other strong contenders may have appeared; this is a hazard of bimonthly publication. But it will really not alter our point, which is to look for a moment to the roots of American life and to marvel at its unparalleled richness and diversity.
It is useless to seek out a real log cabin among the birthplaces of the current contenders for the Presidency. But there is an authentic farmhouse—oil-lit and far from prosperous. It is the rambling Sam Johnson place on the Pedernales River near Johnson City, Blanco County, Texas, where a boy was born at daybreak, August 27, 1908, to Rebekah Baines Johnson and Samuel Ealy Johnson, Jr.
Rebekah’s father had served in the state legislature, holding the seat later occupied by his son-in-law. Her husband was a farmer and a schoolteacher: he served five terms in the Texas legislature. Living near them was the child’s white-haired, white-bearded paternal grandfather, who had also served in the legislature for one term as a Populist. Politics seemed to be the cottage industry, so much so that on hearing the glad news Samuel EaIy Johnson, Sr., mounted a horse and took to the countryside to give the neighbors the news:
“A United States senator was born this morning—my grandson.”
In retrospect this was a rare thing for a Texan: an understatement. Old Sam was a tall, gregarious porchsitter, a patriarch who had raised nine children and was living out a somewhat impoverished old age in the farmhouse which today is the center of the LBJ Ranch. The present First Lady likes to tell how her husband was a runaway almost as soon as he could walk, fortunately turning up not in the river but at grandfather’s, where he would climb around in a rolltop desk that was carefully kept stocked for him with apples and stick candy.
President Lyndon Johnson’s grandfather was born on November 12, 1838, in Alabama, while his family was making the slow journey from Georgia to Texas. He was the tenth child. Jesse and Lucy Webb Barnett Johnson got to Texas all right, settling at Lockhart in 1846, but both died there about ten years later. Meanwhile, Sam and his elder brother, Tom, had gone to the Blanco County area of Texas; there they started buying cattle.
It was the right historic moment to enter a hard but romantic business. They acquired land and built a log-cabin fort with a fine view of the Pedernales. “These old pioneers always had enough poetry in their souls to choose a beautiful home site—and a beautiful graveyard,” says Mrs. Lyndon Johnson today. This rude building, which is now shown to visitors, became the nucleus later of Johnson City, and before the Civil War began, Sam and Tom were driving large herds along the Chisholm Trail up to Kansas and even to Montana. Three Johnson nephews joined the enterprise, which became the largest in that particular part of the state, eventually acquiring 50,000 acres.
When Texas joined the Confederacy, Sam Johnson enlisted in Company B of DeBray’s Regiment at Lockhart and saw service throughout the war. He gained some distinction for bravery in battles at Galveston and at Pleasant Hill, where his horse was shot out from under him. Returning to Lockhart after the war, he married a well-born Texas lady named Eliza Bunton and brought her back to the log-fort bachelor’s quarters on the Pedernales, where he and his brothers resumed cattle-driving on an even bigger scale. They built pens and branding stalls not far away at Williamson’s Creek. From there, herds of 2,500 to 3,000 longhorns, accompanied by a trail driver, cook, wrangler, and as many as sixteen cowboys, would head north for Kansas in the spring. It was a life of dust and weariness, of buffalo-hunting and chance meetings with Indians, of genuine hardship. But it was a life of independence—the Texas legend when it was real.
It was a young man’s world, and not perhaps what a gently reared young woman like Eliza Johnson had expected. She accepted it bravely, but yearned for her more civilized home back in Lockhart. She yearned all the more when Indian troubles came to Blanco County. In 1869, a local couple were killed and scalped by the Indians, and a party of local men set out after them. The Texans found the Indians at Deer Creek, drove them away in a small skirmish, and started back to the Johnson ranch.
Meanwhile, Eliza was having an adventure of her own. She was alone when she saw Indians coming in from the north on ponies. Quickly she snatched up her new baby, grabbed an extra diaper, and descended through a trap door to a storage cellar below, somehow pulling the rug back into place with her fingertips before she closed it. After a short while the Indians burst into the room above, and she could hear them knocking things about. Stifling the infant’s cries with the diaper, she waited quietly for the raiders to find her—or leave. At length there was no more noise, but still she remained in the cellar, fearful lest some Indians had loitered behind. After a long time, she heard more footsteps, and was relieved to hear the strong voice of her husband shouting, “Eliza! Eliza!”
Up went the trap door and out came a dutiful voice:
“Here I am, Mr. Sam.”
Shortly after this sobering experience the little family, doubtless under wifely pressure, moved eastward again to the more settled life of Caldwell County and later Hays County, where eight more children were bom. They returned to “the hill country,” as the Johnson City area is known, about 1889. Exact facts about Sam Johnson’s later years are a little hard to come by, although it is clear that the 50,000 acres lie and his family once owned had dwindled to very little. His descendants still relish one event in his political career, however. Running for the legislature again on the Populist ticket, he was opposed by a conservative young “independent” named Clarence Martin. Martin procured a double buggy, and in the companionable fashion of Texas in those days the rival candidates travelled the hustings together, taking turns speaking. As it turned out, Sam lost by a small margin, but his good humor was never shaken, especially since his successful rival was also his son-in law.
Let us end this account of Grandfather Johnson in the kindly, pious, and American Gothic tones of a local biographer, writing a good many years ago: “Although he had a high temper, he was seldom seen in anger and never in his life used an oath. He had a very deep and abiding [religious] faith … and, when dying, fully conscious, spoke to his loved ones, assuring them of his complete readiness to meet his Maker and of his sustaining hope of eternal life. His death, as his life, was an inspiration to those who knew him.”
Goldwater was a well-known name in Arizona long before Senator Harry Goldwater became a national figure; it is, of course, a Jewish name even though the Senator’s mother, the former Josephine Williams, brought her children up as Episcopalians. Not a few Jews, most of them of German origin, ventured out to the Southwest in the hardy frontier days a century ago. Some of them came to be traders and bankers as they had been in the Old World, but there were others who made their way down the Santa Fe Trail to work in the mines, to run freight, and at least one to ride for the Pony Express. One of the most successful of these pioneers was Michael Goldwater, a tall, burly man known as “Big Mike.”
Big Mike and his short, rotund brother, Joseph, were born in Konin, in Russian Poland, in the 1820’s. The family, originally called Goldwasser, emigrated first to Germany and then to England, when Mike was twenty-seven. After a few years as capmakers in London, the two young men and Mike’s young wife shipped steerage to New York in 1852, and made their way, seeking gold like everyone else, to California. For a while they sold hardware and whiskey among the miners, then drifted down to Los Angeles, where they turn up in the records as the proprietors of a kind of pool hall, bar, and Yankee notions store.
About 1860, when there was a gold strike along the Colorado River, Mike travelled by mule team to trade with miners and Indians in what is now Arizona. He set up shop in the little town of La Paz, bringing in his goods by flat boat, but the river had an annoying habit of changing its bed, so that La Paz eventually expired and Goldwater moved six miles downstream to a better location, founding a town he named Ehrenberg after a partner who was murdered, probably by Indians. By now his brother Joseph had joined him in Arizona, although Mike’s wife would not be stirred from the more civilized life of California.
In these two little settlements and finally in Phoenix, where the brothers opened a big store in 1872, there was plenty of adventure and excitement. Joe Goldwater was perhaps the more colorful. A weather-beaten character who is supposed to have lost one eye in a brawl, he sent off by mail for a glass replacement, onlv to receive one that was blue instead of the desired brown. He wore it anyway. “Variety,” he said, “is the spice of life.” One day while he was operating a branch of the far-flung Goldwater operation in Tombstone, some badmen entered and demanded that the “one-eyed s.o.b.” open the sale for them. Joe gladly obliged, since the money the men wanted—the payroll of the Copper Queen mine—was hidden elsewhere in some sacks of barley. Before the disgruntled robbers left, they shot up the town, a jollification which cost three lives. (The offenders were later captured and hanged.)
On another occasion the Goldwater brothers, trotting along with a Dr. W. W. Jones, were attacked on the road between Prescott and Ehrenberg by a band of some thirty Apache Indians. The three men made a run for it, and after a four-mile chase were lucky enough to meet another, larger party of white men. Before turning off, however, the Indians managed to hit Joe in the shoulder, ventilate Dr. Jones’ shirt, and put two holes through Big Mike’s hat brim. Frontier trading and merchandising was no life for nervous ribbon clerks. Nor was bill collecting always easy. Once, for example, the company operating a gold mine tastefully entitled the Vulture found itself unable to pay the Goldwaters some $90,000 it owed them. Somehow the owners simply couldn’t make the works profitable. They sold out, decamped, and left the brothers holding an empty bag. To get back this large sum, Big Mike and Joe decided to work the mine for themselves until the new owners arrived, and by very hard labor were soon clearing $3,000 a day. Even after the new owners came, the brothers managed to hold them off until in thirty days they had recovered their $90,000.
By the time the railroad and the telegraph came to Phoenix and Prescott, homes of the two main Goldwater stores, Big Mike was getting ready for a rest. In 1883 he retired to live out his remaining twenty years in San Francisco, and the stores in Phoenix and Prescott were carried on by his two able sons, Morris and Baron, the latter the father of the present candidate. There were, to be sure, three wilder boys, one of them a wandering ne’er-do-well, one a salesman, one a professional faro dealer in the Northwest. All this is in the frontier tradition, although the trio drops out of the prosperous scene into which Barry Goldwater was born in 1906. Barry was three years too late to see Big Mike, but not too late to come under his strong individualistic influence. Meanwhile, the enterprise that began in a peddler’s wagon was doing ten million dollars’ worth of business by 1962, the year in which the family sold out to a chain and, one might say, brought the private Goldwater frontier to a close.
“Richard Milhous Nixon is an authentic product of the American pioneer tradition,” says William Costello in The Facts About Nixon , a book published during the 1960 campaign. “On both sides of his family he traces his ancestors back to Colonial times. In the main they were farmers, artisans, tradesmen.… In the words of his wife, Pat, ‘We come from typical everyday American families that have had to work for what they got out of life but always knew there was unlimited opportunity.…’ Like most Americans, Nixon is barely a generation removed from the soil. He has no ties with what passes today for an aristocracy.…”
It would be hard to argue with Mr. Costello, or with Mrs. Nixon, in their estimates of the long, useful, unspectacular record of the Nixons in America. A George Nixon fought at the Battle of Princeton in 1777, and the grandson of this old Revolutionary soldier, another George Nixon, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1821, married a lady named Margaret Ann Trimmer. They were living in Washington County in that state when she gave birth to Richard Nixon’s paternal grandfather, Samuel Brady Nixon, on October 9, 1847. In 1853, the growing family moved westward to a farm in Elk Township, Ohio. Subsequently George Nixon, who was then forty, enlisted in Company B, 73rd Ohio Infantry, and died of wounds received at Gettysburg. Not long after his widow also died, leaving eight orphan children—that endlessly recurring tragedy in the annals of plain people.
It is known that Samuel Brady Nixon married in 1873, bringing his bride, Sarah Ann Wadsworth, a storekeeper’s daughter, to live on a farm in Swan Township, Vinton County, Ohio. The former Vice President’s father, Francis Anthony Nixon, was born in 1878. When Sarah Ann died Frank was only seven, and was sent to live with his uncle. The boy left school in the fourth grade, becoming a farm hand and Jack-of-all-trades, drifting with the tide of anonymous migrants to southern California. At various times he was a potato farmer, a sheeprancher, a painter, and a trolley motorman in Los Angeles. The country end of his run was in the town of Whittier, where he married into the Milhous family; they were Quakers who had helped settle the community of Friends. Frank Nixon became a Quaker too. In 1912 he bought some land in Yorba Linda and planted a lemon grove, which proved to be a failure. How could he know, as he sold out, that oil would later be discovered under the unfruitful trees? Eventually he started a filling station in Whittier and this prospered enough to provide for a frugal, strict, but happy household, one which might have been indistinguishable from hundreds and thousands like it—except for what would happen later to the second son, Richard.
But for this boy, the grandfather too would belong to the vast anonymous company of the ordinary dead. He farmed. He taught school, according to the few available facts. He is known to have carried the mail from the depot at Orland, Ohio, to the post office at Hue. After his wife died he married again, had another son, died in 1914, and was buried in the New Plymouth Cemetery—facts which can be gleaned from the files of the Republican Tribune of McArthur, Ohio. Thus ends the story of Samuel Brady Nixon, the exception among the seven elders considered here, the prover of the rule, a common man untainted by aristocracy, unscarred by worldly success.
The city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, owes its founding to two fairly rich properties: a deep seam of clean-burning anthracite coal, which is now pretty well played out, and a family named Scranton, which seems on the contrary to possess infinite durability. The Scrantons came originally from Guildford, England, to East Guilford (now Madison), Connecticut. By the mid-eighteenth century they held military office, property, and slaves in that land of steady habits; by the mid-nineteenth some of them had pushed westward over the Poconos to the Lackawanna Valley of Pennsylvania, rich in coal, iron, and opportunity. They began smelting in a little village called Slocum Hollow, and by the time the smelter had grown big, the town was named for them. Railroads came, especially the Lackawanna, “The Route of Anthracite” (and spotless Phoebe Snow), and everything prospered.
Into this powerful and successful family of coal kings and railroad presidents, William Walker Scranton, grandfather of the present governor of Pennsylvania, was born on April 4, 1844. Growing tall and robust, he was sent to Phillips Academy at Andover, Massachusetts, and then to Yale, where he became a famous oarsman and graduated in 1865. In two years he was superintendent of one of the family’s mills, and after his father’s death (in 1872) he operated the whole complex of Scranton interests: collieries, ironworks, a bank, the gas and water works. When American railroads began to turn from domestic iron rails to the superior steel ones imported from Europe, Scranton went abroad and took lowly employment in the guise of a “puddler” in the mills of Britain and Germany. He came back an exact master of the new Bessemer process; after a struggle with his more conservative business associates, Lackawanna Iron & Coal became Lackawanna Iron & Steel.
He was as tough as his product; in his late thirties he could heft 2,000 pounds dead weight, before witnesses. And he was a hard steel master in other ways; consider his reaction, for example, to union demands, as recounted with carefree syntax in Frederick L. Hitchcock’s History of Scranton and Its People:
During labor troubles … in 1871 [he] led to and from the mines daily a party of non-striking miners; he leading an escort of a body of miners from the mines homeward, was attacked by a mob, and in self-defense two of the rioters were killed. During the railroad riots of 1877, when the works of the Lackawanna Iron and Coal Company and the shops of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Company were attacked by three thousand rioters, with an armed party he met the mob, who were dispersed in a few minutes, but not before three of their leaders were killed. The leaders of the striking element caused the arrest and trial of Mr. Scranton and his party on the charge of manslaughter, but they were acquitted, with the thanks of the court for their action in quelling the riot.… He is a strong level headed man of affairs, but the finer side of his nature responds to every [charitable or civic] appeal or demand made upon it.
There speaks the nineteenth century, albeit his biographer was writing in 1914. Two years later, honest, successful, and richer than ever, the first citizen of Scranton died. It turned out that he only slightly predeceased most of the things he stood for. Even the anthracite veins ran thin just about the time that America, tired of stoking coal furnaces, turned to the product of another of our seven grandfathers.
He fills the bookshelves, until there is almost nothing new left to say about him. He gave away dimes, wore funny golf hats, looked (in his later years) like a mummy, and lived from the age of Horatio Alger to the almost diametrically opposed one of Franklin Roosevelt. He was the richest man the world had ever seen, but he taught in Sunday schools and rode to work on the El. From his great oil fortune there came, in his ninety-eight years of life, over half a billion in splendidly planned and executed philanthropies, and from the father and the son together there had proceeded by 1955, according to one guess, the staggering sum of two and one-half billion dollars.
A few of his offers were turned down as “tainted money,” and to many reformers and muckrakers he was the most heartless, grasping villain in history, but he outlived those controversies. The passage of time lends respectability to large sums, however acquired, and so does the fact that John Davison Rockefeller performed a vital service in the economic history of the United States, for he showed the way to industrial organization and mass marketing.
The man whose name became a household word was born on a farm at Richford, New York, on July 8, 1839. In Cleveland, to which the family moved, young John entered a commission merchants’ firm at $3.50 a week. In a few years he was in business for himself. When the oil fields opened in Pennsylvania, Rockefeller and some partners built a little refinery in 1863. Oil-producing was a chaotic industry, all dog-eat-dog competition, quick profits, and waves of bankruptcies. Young Rockefeller, the newcomer, hated waste and disorder—and the rest is history. By 1877—when he was thirty-eight—by dint of infinite patience and skill in organizing, buying, maneuvering, and joining forces with other able men, he had come to dominate the shipping, refining, and selling of oil in the United States; before long his kerosene cans also spread through Africa, Asia, and South America. The famous, or infamous, Standard Oil “trust” was devised in 1881–82.
By the time the courts dissolved the huge combine in 1911, Rockefeller himself had long since retired from active participation in the business, and had found new challenges in philanthropy. He had always tithed, even when his income was a pittance, but clearly something more was needed, in those days before the income tax, to dispose of the rapidly accumulating millions. For as his philanthropic adviser, the former Baptist minister Frederick T. Gates, warned Rockefeller: “Your fortune is rolling up, rolling up like an avalanche! You must keep up with it! You must distribute it faster than it grows! If you do not, it will crush you and your children and your children’s children!”
All three generations—the father; the shy, dutiful son; the numerous grandchildren—addressed themselves to this task of distribution, with (in most cases) a notable sense of public service. They were not crushed, at least not entirely. Meanwhile the huge enterprise, however fragmented by the courts, only prospered the more. The automobile appeared, the oil-heated house, the diesel engine—there was no end to the new uses of petroleum, and the fortune could apparently never be spent.
It is, all in all, quite a creation for a Sunday school teacher. It must, if the news reaches him today, make him smile a little to hear one grandson, the candidate for the Presidency, forced to insist publicly, as he did over a year ago, that “I believe in private initiative and private enterprise.” What else, indeed, old John D. might ask, could have produced so much, for so many, for so long?
“When anybody is annoyed with me,” said Henry Cabot Lodge, the Elder, “he is sure to call me a Brahmin.” But to the late Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, whose annoyance passed all bounds, the senator from Massachusetts was much worse than that. He had defeated her husband, and defeated him on the issue dearest to his heart, the League of Nations, and so for years afterward she referred to the Senator as that “stinking snake.” Because Lodge indeed had his unforgiving and ruthless side, he has become over the years since his death in 1924 a liberal’s villain, so black-hearted and unprincipled an enemy of internationalism that the choice of his grandson and namesake to represent the United States at the United Nations came to superficial thinkers as a stroke of historical irony.
The “devil” theory of Lodge is convenient—he wore a Mephistophelian pointed beard—but it overlooks the greater intransigence of President Wilson. Lodge was fighting for reservations, not against the League in its entirety; the tragedy for humanity is that Wilson—or Mrs. Wilson during his incapacity—would not compromise at all.
One can dispense with the snake and the devil images of Lodge but the Brahmin one is truthful. On May 12, 1850, he was born into one of the few true aristocracies in America, one distinguished less by wealth than by intellect and public service. The clipper ships of his merchant father, John Ellerton Lodge, sailed out of Boston to China and the East; into his father’s granite mansion came such visitors as Longfellow, Agassiz, and Charles Sumner. Historians were familiar guests: Bancroft, who lived across the street, and Henry Adams, who took young Lodge in hand at Harvard and helped make him a historian too.
If you have the great poets read to you by your father when you are a child, if your English teacher is James Russell Lowell, if you are healthy, handsome, and mildly wealthy, if you are married to a girl so beautiful as to astound a painter like John Singer Sargent, if you are so well-travelled that you “greet the Venus of Milo like an old friend,” if interesting but untaxing jobs are found for you—if all this good fortune is handed you on a silver platter, so to speak, do you just settle back and become a dilettante?
Not if you are Henry Cabot Lodge. He made himself one career as a historian, and a popular and prolific one whose biographies of Washington, Hamilton, and Webster (all once friends of the family) were still selling fifty years after they were published.
Pressed on by a New England sense of duty as well as by bright ambition, he forced his way at the same time into the hurly-burly of politics—Harvard accent, elegant diction, cool manner, and other aristocratic handicaps notwithstanding. He made himself a superb practical politician and spent thirty-seven years in the Congress, first in the House, then in the Senate. In the former he strongly supported the so-called “Force” Bill, to protect the voting rights of Negroes in the South after Reconstruction. He fought for Civil Service reform—and through it helped bring his lifelong friend Theodore Roosevelt into national politics. He helped draft the Sherman antitrust laws and the Pure Food and Drug Act; he opposed Prohibition and votes for women. Hcesupported Roosevelt in America’s imperialistic adventures, made himself an expert on international affairs, and eventually became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He also lived to hear himself—alone of our seven grandfathers—mentioned for the Presidency (in the year that Harding won), and his response was characteristic. As he wrote his old friend, the historian John T. Morse, in 1919, “I think I should make an admirable President, [but] I am certain I should make a poor candidate. I have too long a record.” Nearly all of it befitted a Boston Brahmin.
The Word, that is, the Word according to Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, reached its first Romneys at an outdoor market-day meeting in England in 1837. Let all those who hurry by street-corner evangels, thinking them of little consequence, consider the results of that event. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as Smith called it, was less than ten years old when it began sending its missionaries abroad, and one of them, the Apostle Orson Hyde, was preaching in Preston, Lancashire, when Miles Romney, a skilled carpenter, and his wife, Elizabeth, came by. The carpenter and his family stopped, listened, attended more meetings, underwent baptism, and took ship from Liverpool for New Orleans in 1841, heading thence up the Mississippi to the Mormon colony at Nauvoo, Illinois. Romney went to work on the new temple being built, and at Nauvoo, Miles Park Romney, grandfather of Governor George Wilcken Romney of Michigan, was born on August 18, 1843.
Less than a year later, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered in the jail at nearby Carthage. Two years later the Saints, as Mormons called themselves, were ejected from Nauvoo and, at different times, made their arduous way across the Plains to the new promised land. The Romneys, too poor to go at once with Brigham Young, started in an ox-team party from St. Louis in March of 1850, arriving at Salt Lake City in October. Seven-year-old Miles P. walked during most of the long, exhausting journey, on which near-starvation, disease, Indians, and harsh weather thinned the ranks to those best adapted to pioneer life.
In Salt Lake, the father became foreman of the “Public Work Shop,” and was put to work on a new temple by President Young; the son was spared much formal learning (he acquired a good deal later, informally) and also became a carpenter and builder. Old Miles was sent back to England in 1856, to gather new converts, putting in the two years or so of the missionary service that so many Mormons perform to this day; he had scarcely returned from this strenuous journey when Young asked the whole family to help colonize the southern part of Utah Territory. There, at the new Mormon town called Saint George, Miles Romney died in a fall in 1877, leaving six children and fifty-seven grandchildren.
To Brigham Young in those days the greatest crop Zion could grow was children—children by the score, children by the hundreds. “Let every man in the land over eighteen years of age take a wife,” he announced. On another occasion he said, “Young men, fit you up a little log cabin, if it is not more than ten feet square, and then get you a bird to put in your little cage.…” To these commands the young Miles Park Romney listened devoutly; at eighteen he married Hannah Hood Hill, who was nineteen and came of a family of Canadian converts. The young couple had spent only three weeks together in the cage, however, when, in the words of a Mormon account, “the Prophet of God by the voice of inspiration asked Miles P. to leave his newly-wedded bride and depart for a Mission to the British Isles.” (It might be observed that the Michigan governor also made his youthful mission there, pushing doorbells in Scotland and speaking on street-corners in England.)
Young Romney arrived in Liverpool in 1862. In the course of his missionary travels he saw a good deal of the world, and much that horrified him:
In the cities and towns of the world [he wrote from England for the paper back home] gin palaces are found on every corner of a street, where they sell slow poison to the people.… In despised Utah, her towns and cities are free from such wicked dens of corruption.… Behold that female as she slowly staggers through the streets, pale, haggard and careworn, clothed in tatters and rags, with a young babe in her arms; without a home, perhaps, she has nowhere to lay her weary head.… Thank God, this scene cannot be beheld in the streets of Utah’s fair towns and cities. Her brave sons are taught from their infancy to respect and protect female virtue as they would their lives. Hence, the wicked and corrupt, because their deeds are evil, do not like the society of the people of God.…
The quality of the man comes through, as does that of the religion: seventeenth century in fundamental intensity, nineteenth in morality, twentieth in boosterism. Yet he was capable of pleasure, loving amateur Mormon theatricals, which he often staged and managed, and strait-laced but vigorous dancing.
In April, 1865, he sailed home on a ship laden with 636 new Saints. Back in Salt Lake City, Romney had barely settled down again to secular pursuits, as a workman on the new tabernacle, when Brigham Young again called him to duty, which this time involved taking a second wife, Carrie Lambourne. “Nothing short of a firm belief in the divine origin of the Revelation of plural marriage could have induced Miles P. Romney to take a second wife,” says his pious biographer (writing full-blown mid-Victorian prose in the year 1948), “and certain it is that Hannah would never have permitted such a heart-breaking thing to come into her life had it not been for the testimony she had of the divinity of the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith.”
Shortly thereafter the newly enlarged Romney family was also sent to the Mormon south, where the hardships, not to mention the strains of plural marriage, proved too much for the new wife. After bearing two children, she left, married again outside the Church, and was replaced in 1873 by a good-looking, darkhaired girl named Catherine Cottam. Hannah, who was getting used to the experience, worked for many days to prepare rooms for the new bride. Soon afterward her husband was ordained a bishop and in 1877 took a fourth wife named Annie M. Woodbury, although back east the Congress of the United States was growing more determined to stamp out plural marriage. All three wives kept producing babies for some years, and Miles Romney’s progeny swelled to thirty. The total of his grandchildren, reckoned years later, comes to 207.
With his large and usually poverty-stricken tribe trailing behind him—travelling in sections for logistical reasons—the Bishop now undertook the harsh journey to settle St. Johns, in Arizona, where the Church was seeking to extend its influence. Presently he was publishing a newspaper and locked in combat about claim-jumping with the gentiles, which in his terminology included even the local Jews. But now Romney, along with Bishop David K. Udall and a few other polygamous Mormons, encountered a new problem, described by Romney’s hagiographer as “the constant harassments of unprincipled deputy United States Marshals” and “the profane and unhallowed actions of libertines and mountebanks under the guise of being upholders of the law.” Put from another standpoint, the territorial antipolygamy statute was being enforced.
Eventually Bishop Romney fled to old Mexico to join other polygamous Mormons who had established settlements in the wilds of Chihuahua and Sonora. The family, still growing relentlessly, followed in the usual brigades. Congress outlawed polygamy in 1882, and the Mormon Church itself banned any more plural marriages in 1890. The Mexican settlements lived on, however, and a generation was born there before Pancho Villa drove them back to the United States. They were model communities in many respects, somewhat resembling early Utopian experiments in the United States. There were no saloons and there was no crime; the towns were full of schools, temples, and other public buildings, many of them the work in some part of Miles P. Romney.
Since the writ of the United States did not run along the Casas Grandes River, where he was living in the late 1890’s, that individualist married one final time, choosing a relatively wealthy widow named Millie Eyring Snow. This match, however, produced no more children. In 1902 Romney, then fifty-nine, was ordained a patriarch and that same year suffered a heart attack and died—or, as he related the event afterward, he was conscious that his soul had left his body and was able to look down from above on his corpse, surrounded by sorrowing relatives. The scene touched him deeply. Since his soul was also distressed by certain tasks he had left unfinished, he pleaded with the Authorities and was permitted, with considerable discomfort, to re-enter his body. In this state, whether of resurrection or recovery, he lived two more active years, and took wing permanently on February 26, 1904—a great figure among his brethren; a puritan elder, in a sense, flourishing in a strange country and a stranger century; and, not least, a one-man population explosion.