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The Best Background
When it comes to genealogical pride, there’s nothing to equal the modest satisfaction of a slightly threadbare, socially impregnable New Englander. A canny guide to the subtle distinctions of America’s most rarefied society.
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
First Families would include the Cabots, who, as the saying goes, talk only to God; the Lowells, who talk to the Cabots; the Adamses, acknowledged by most to be the foremost of all First Families; the Forbeses, perhaps the wealthiest; the Appletons, who made a fortune, as so many First Families did, in the textile industry after coming to Boston from their native New Hampshire; the Saltonstalls, who have sent sons to Harvard in every generation since Nathaniel Saltonstall graduated in 1659; the Peabodys, whose family fortune was founded by Joseph Peabody of Salem, who was a privateer during the Revolution; the Winthrops, who helped found the Massachusetts Historical Society; the Putnams, who, along with the Jacksons, Bowditches, and Warrens, led the Harvard Medical School throughout the nineteenth century; the Quincys, who include a President of Harvard; the Phillipses, who founded both Andover and Exeter; the Lodges, who have been senators as well as having held almost every good position in the world, including that of Harvard Overseer; the Emersons, whose member Ralph Waldo did very well in the writing field; the Eliots, who include presidents of both Trinity and Harvard… and so on.
In New England today First Family status still provides an important inside track insofar as obtaining an executive position is concerned. At least on the initial contacts. Outside New England is a different situation, of course—as exemplified by the often-told story of the young Bostonian who requested a family friend working at the Old Colony Trust Company to write a letter of recommendation to a Chicago firm to which he was applying for a position.
“I can recommend him to you without the slightest reservation,” wrote the family friend, who went on to say the young man’s mother was a Cabot, his father a Lowell, and his ancestry was all Peabodys, Appletons, Forbses, and Saltonstalls.
The Chicago firm replied that they really were looking for different information. “After all,” they wrote, “we are not contemplating using the young man for breeding purposes.”
Not every famous name from Revolutionary days necessarily founded a First Family, but it is of passing interest to note that, as E. Digby Baltzell writes, more famous New England or Boston men of national consequence founded First Families than, in proportion, did non-New England men. For instance, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, though espousing quite different political philosophies during their lifetimes, were great friends in their last years and even died on the same day, July 4,1826. Both were members of the upper class in their colonies, and both were natural leaders. But only John Adams founded a First Family. Baltzell feels that it has been men of conservative, rather than liberal, temperament who have been, for the most part, the First Family founders. And New England, as we know, has enjoyed an advantage in men of conservative temperament. Thus, John Winthrop founded a First Family. William Penn did not.
William Penn was a liberal thinker, a Utopian dreamer, a pacifist, a Quaker ("or some very melancholy thing,” according to the seventeenth-century diary quoted by D. Elton Trueblood in his book The People Called Quakers ). For the most part, the people who came over on the Mayflower and landed in Plymouth in 1620 were of that same gentle temperament. Brave and tough, to be sure, but definitely not of the upper crust.
So, in keeping with Baltzell’s theory, which does seem to hold true, New England’s First Families did not originate with the Mayflower group. Instead, most if not all New England First Families trace their American ancestors back to those of a more aristocratic nature who sailed over here from England in 1630 (and for a number of years thereafter) on the Arbella and fifteen other ships to found the Massachusetts Bay Company. These people, including a Saltonstall, a Winthrop, a Phillips, a Bradstreet (but no Dun—although a “Dunn” came over on the Mayflower ), a Quincy, and most of the other First Family ancestors, were conservative businessmen with a strictly puritan outlook on work, religion, sex, death, and the Hereafter. As we all know, they were Puritans. The Mayflower people were Pilgrims.