“We Are All Descended From Grandfathers!”

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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

 
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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.