The United States was born in a sudden and decisive repudiation of blood. By abolishing monarchy and becoming republicans in 1776, Americans turned their backs on the age-old tradition of birth and patrimony. No longer would it matter who your father was or who your ancestors were. In the new republican society, merit and talent were all that would count. Even the ancien régime had recognized that in the arts and sciences only individual genius mattered. Artists and scientists in the old order may have resided in hereditary monarchies, but they knew that they actually lived in “a republic of letters.”
Who remembered the sons of Homer and Euclid? asked Thomas Paine. The American Revolution was to extend this republican spirit of the arts and sciences to the entire society. Everyone in the future would be judged solely by his individual worth. “The Ideal of a Man born a Magistrate, a Legislator, or a Judge,” declared George Mason in his initial draft of the Virginia Bill of Rights, “is unnatural and absurd.”
Yet for a nation so conceived, so committed presumably to the rejection of birth and blood, the people of the United States throughout their history have devoted an enormous amount of energy, time, and money to genealogy and the search for ancestors. To explain this anomaly—indeed, to explain how the search for ancestors evolved in different forms over four centuries and eventually became a distinctly American mode of genealogy—is the burden of François Weil’s well-researched and readable book, Family Trees. Weil, who is chancellor of the Universities of Paris and professor of history at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, knows America well, but he has sufficient distance to be honest and dispassionate about it. The result is a succinct history of genealogy in a nation that supposedly denies the importance of birth and ancestors.
Of course, before the Revolution the colonists were as interested in genealogy as their English cousins back home and resorted to it for a variety of purposes. Because of the intensity of their Puritanism, New Englanders tended to use their ancestors less as sources of genealogical pride and more as moral guides to living. But elsewhere in the colonies the gentry tended to seek genealogical sanctions for their social status, usually by acquiring coats of arms that they placed on their silver, coaches, dishes, and other items. Since the colonists lacked the heraldic and genealogical regulation that existed in the mother country, the wealthy among them were able to acquire signs of their presumed aristocratic ancestry more easily than the gentry in England. Indeed, says Weil, the colonists “could choose coats of arms as they pleased.” Even slaves in…
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