Most people know George Kennan as a diplomat, perhaps the most important American diplomat of the twentieth century. During the twenty-five years that he spent in the Foreign Service he was always at the center of things. In the early 1930s he helped to set up the first US embassy in the Soviet Union. He was in Prague during the Munich crisis in 1938 and in Berlin during the first two and a half years of World War II. As the State Department’s first chief of the Policy Planning Staff in 1947 he was instrumental in setting up the Marshall Plan. At the same time in the famous “long telegram” and the “X” article in Foreign Affairs he warned of the dangers of trusting the Soviet Union, and set forth the idea of “containment” as the basis for American policy toward its former ally in World War II. Few American diplomats have had that kind of career or influence on foreign policy.
But despite all these diplomatic accomplishments, Kennan has actually devoted most of his adult life to scholarship. Except for brief spells as ambassador to the Soviet Union in the 1950s and as ambassador to Yugoslavia in the 1960s, he has spent the past half-century at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, mainly writing his memoirs and a number of distinguished and elegant works of history.
It is as a historian that Kennan feels most at ease, and it is for his histor-ical work that he most wants to be remembered. Of course, as he once said, what “prominent people…see as their greatest contributions to the life of their times is not always what posterity sees in that way.” He knows that over the past four or five decades his contributions to the public discussion of nuclear weapons, Soviet–American relations, and other contemporary issues have received the most public attention. But he regards all these public disagreements with his government about foreign policy as part-time diversions, exciting and interesting no doubt, but not to be compared to his long-term professional dedication to history-writing.
Although Kennan has never written any lengthy treatise on writing history, he has written a number of short but perceptive essays that self-consciously deal with the nature of the craft. In 1986 he gave an address to the American Academy of Arts and Letters that describes as nicely as anyone has in fewer than three thousand words exactly what history-writing is about. Many people, he says, think of the historian as the sixteenth-century English poet Sir Philip Sidney did, as a man “laden with old mouse-eaten records, authorizing himself for the most part on other histories, whose greatest authorities are built upon the notable foundation of hearsay, better acquainted with a thousand years ago than with the present age…curious for antiquities,…inquisitive of novelties, a wonder to young folks, and a tyrant in table-talk.” Perhaps, Kennan admits, some historians are like that, but that is not the character of most historians. They are not mere purveyors of facts about the past, and they do not see the events of the past with their own eyes. They have to imaginatively create them. Historians, he writes, have,
as a rule, only the hieroglyphics of the written word as preserved in crumbling old documents, and sometimes a few artifacts that have survived the ravages of time and neglect…. But these evidences only hint at the real story—they don’t tell it. It is up to the historian to examine them critically and imaginatively, to select among them (for they are often multitudinous in number), to try to penetrate the reality behind them, and to try to depict them in a way that reveals their meaning. And to accomplish this task, what does he have to draw upon? Only what he already has within him: his knowledge, of course, of the historical background, his level of cultural sensitivity, his ability to put the isolated bit of evidence into the larger context, and, above all, his capacity for insight and empathy, his ability to identify with the historical figures he describes, his educated instinct for what is significant and what is not—in other words, his creative imagination.
What emerges from this scrutiny can never be the absolute and total truth; but if the historian is true to his craft, it is as close to the truth as he can possibly make it. Kennan has no truck with the fashionable postmodern epistemological skepticism that tries to blur the distinction between fiction and history. But he does concede that history necessarily “remains a vision of the past—not the past in its pure form (no one could ever recreate that) but the past as one man, and one man alone, is capable of envisioning it, of depicting it. It is perceived reality,…the only kind of reality that can have meaning for us other human beings and be useful to us.” This is why, he says, every work of history “is at least as revealing of the man who wrote it and the period in which it was written as it is of the people it portrays and the epoque in which they lived.”
If, as Kennan contends, history is an act of creative imagination, then he needed a great deal of it for his latest work of history—the reconstruction of the lives of the first three American generations of his Kennan ancestors. The historical record he had to work with was extraordinarily meager—some brief references to names in town and church records and over three generations only four letters, and these from the early nineteenth century. The result is a very bare-boned account that Kennan does the best he can to flesh out. Precisely because he has had to include his “own intuitive feelings for the backgrounds of particularly obscure or baffling episodes,” this volume, he admits, may “be no less revealing for the mental and aesthetic world of the author than for the subjects of which he treats.” Indeed, this little volume would have little interest for most readers except for the fact that it tells us a great deal about Kennan himself.
In 1907 Kennan’s grandfather privately published a small genealogical record of the Kennan family in America. Like many aging persons, Kennan has long been interested in the genealogy of his family and wondered “whether there was not something that could be done to broaden and make more vivid the image of these earlier members of the family whose identities Grandfather had been at such pains to establish.” He wanted to write “something in the nature of an actual family history.” Because the historical record was so scanty, he realized his history would have to contain events that not only “appeared provable by documentary evidence,” but that also “seemed sufficiently probable to deserve mention.” In the mid-1980s he hastily and privately printed his findings in a short book for family and friends, but, more recently, desiring to reach a broader readership with something fuller and more interesting, he has worked up this more elaborate family history.
His family history begins in 1647 in Dumfries, Scotland, where James Kennan, “the first reasonably identifiable patriarch of our Kennan family,” was born. This Kennan was no aristocrat, but he was a substantial and prominent citizen in the town, a good Presbyterian, and, according to an eighteenth-century town history, “an old Cromwellian.” The first American Kennan was presumably James’s great-grandson, with the same name, who was born between 1715 and 1720 and emigrated to the American colonies sometime later. All we know about this immigrant James is that in 1744 he was married to a Margaret Smith, who was herself a migrant from Ulster, and that he and Margaret lived in or near the village of Holden, Massachusetts, not far from Worcester. For twenty-six years these first American Kennans farmed and raised nine or ten children, losing only one to disease. In the early 1770s the Kennans moved by stages some forty-five miles west, to the vicinity of the small town of Charlemont in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts, not far from the present Vermont border.
In Charlemont James bought a fifty-one-acre farm, the bare minimum for a viable New England farm, especially with five sons to provide for. But just at the moment of arriving in Charlemont in the early 1770s, James’s second son, twenty-year-old George, married a woman of fairly substantial background, Abigail Sherman, whose English family had come from Connecticut. Abigail, who was four or five years older than George, soon gave birth to the first of her ten children, four of whom died in infancy or early childhood. Kennan is somewhat bewildered by this “rather sudden marriage” and the birth of Thomas that took place in “curious circumstances,” but he never considers that the marriage may have been forced by the pregnancy of Abigail. Convinced that his New England ancestors were simple, honest, straightforward people, without “any instances of deviousness, sordidness, or cynicism,” Kennan cannot imagine their engaging in shotgun marriages.
But, in fact, premarital pregnancies were becoming increasingly common in colonial New England by this time. In the few studies of New England communities that we have, over one third of all marriages were followed by the birth of a child within eight months or less. Some historians have conjectured that this was a way in which young people were trying to control whom they married. At any rate, when the first-born Thomas himself grew up and married Sally Lathrop in February 1795, the birth of their first child followed eight months later. Kennan makes no comment about the unusual circumstances of the birth of this child, who would become his great-grandfather.
Kennan himself inevitably has to make many conjectures, and some of them don’t seem as convincing as he would like them to be. He assumes, for example, that because George, the second-generation American, took on some important offices in Charlemont after his father James died in 1780, he must have moved closer to the town center. His evidence for this conjecture is that four out of the five children born after 1780 died in early childhood. “Does this not suggest that the place to which they had moved was in some way seriously unhealthy?” As if the center of this little village, which even in its entirety could not have contained more than several dozen families, was a cesspool of disease.
What really puzzles Kennan in his strenuous effort to reconstruct his ancestors’ history from the skimpiest of records is why they kept moving from one community to another. At the end of the 1790s George and his family moved from Charlemont to a place in central Vermont called Waterbury. To Kennan this decision to move to Vermont was “strange” and “startling.” How could George and his family have so completely pulled up stakes and moved “to a remote and uncertain destination” as they did? Didn’t they have “bonds of association and acquaintance, if not friendship, with others members” of the Charlemont community?
Kennan guesses that the family moved because of a need to be near other Scots. It turns out that George and his family owned property near Charlemont in a Scottish-dominated village called Coltrain. Because the census of 1790 lists George as living in Coltrain, that must have been his official residence, since George was “unlikely to have owned, at that time, two houses, one in Charelmont and one in Coltrain.” But it is not quite as simple as Kennan assumes. Since George was listed in the Charlemont deeds as a “Gentleman,” while his younger brothers remained “Yeomen”—a distinction of great importance in the eighteenth century—it was quite possible that he was wealthy enough to own property in several places. Still, there is the problem of explaining why the family would move to Waterbury in search “of finding” what Kennan assumes was “a secure and permanent home.”
Kennan is sure that it couldn’t have been because of better schooling in Waterbury. At times Kennan seems to imply that these little New England communities had something resembling modern school systems. George’s eldest son, Thomas, he writes, “had presumably exhausted all such educational benefits as Charlemont had to offer.” Indeed, all of George’s “children must have, one supposes, attended the local schools.” Why then would they move to Waterbury, which had no schools at all? Kennan does not seem aware that a tiny community like Charlemont would scarcely have had “schools,” but would have been fortunate to have had an itinerant teacher for several months a year.
It is true that Massachusetts had compulsory schooling, but this only meant that each town of fifty families was supposed to maintain a “petty school” teaching reading and writing, with towns of one hundred families supposedly maintaining a Latin grammar school; in 1789 this figure was raised to two hundred families. Not only were the inhabitants themselves not compelled to attend these schools, but by the late eighteenth century many of the towns preferred to pay fines rather than maintain the schools. Formal schooling in these little communities was never as common as Kennan implies, and certainly a desire for better schools would never in a modern manner have entered into people’s decisions to move from one community to another.
The truth is that many New Englanders were on the move in these years. In the last half of the eighteenth century more and more New England farmers felt that they were running out of land and were eager to seek opportunities elsewhere. James and Margaret Kennan’s move from Holden to Charlemont in the early 1770s was anything but unusual. Between 1741 and 1780, 90 percent of all new settlements in Massachusetts were founded in the counties west of Worcester. Especially in the years after 1763 thousands of New Englanders, and not just the Kennans, set out for new and distant places, even to the very edges of the recently expanded British Empire. Massachusetts and Connecticut colonists not only trekked to northern New England and Nova Scotia but began moving to areas as far away as the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania and the lower Mississippi. Indeed, the largest single addition to the population of West Florida came from the settlement of four hundred families from Connecticut in 1773–1774.
Between 1760 and 1790 tens of thousands from southern New England moved up the Connecticut River into New Hampshire and what became the state of Vermont. Even before the outbreak of the Revolution migrants from Massachusetts streamed into Maine and founded ninety-four new towns. In all, during the years between the 1760s and the 1790s hundreds of new towns were established in northern New England. In the 1790s 50,000 Americans, mostly from New England and New York, left the United States for Canada, putting themselves once more under the British crown, not because they were latter-day loyalists, but because they wanted cheap land.
George and his family flourished in Waterbury, Vermont. He became an innkeeper and a justice of the peace and for several sessions served in the Vermont legislature. It was George’s son Thomas, however, who commands most of Kennan’s attention, mainly because of the young man’s “active religious commitment,” which led to his becoming a Presbyterian minister in 1801. How Thomas should have developed this commitment is “an interesting question” for Kennan, one that he does not find all that easy to answer. But explaining Thomas’s religious commitment in Vermont in the early nineteenth century should not have been very difficult. Between 1790 and 1820 northern rural New England, and especially Vermont, was awash in religious enthusiasm and turmoil. Not only did millennial prophets and radical religious sects of all sorts emerge and flourish—Shakers, Universalists, Free Baptists—but the older Calvinist religions—Congregationalists and Presbyterians—were transformed and broken apart into ever smaller but ever more evangelical fragments. The Kennans would have been strange indeed if they did not get caught up in this religious enthusiasm.
Radical religious revivalism was the response of people cut loose from traditional social ties and, like Kennan’s ancestors, on the move as never before. Kennan found himself once again faced with a “mystery” in trying to explain why Thomas, soon after he became a minister, packed up his family and, leaving Vermont altogether, moved to a small rural district in north-central New York. In 1819 Thomas moved again to DeKalb, New York, and in 1831 as a widower he moved still again to join his son in Ohio, where he lived until his death in 1843. But these moves, like the earlier ones, should have been no mystery. Kennan’s ancestors were not odd or unusual in moving from one community to another, for many people during these turbulent years uprooted themselves four or five times in their lifetime. The father of the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith (born in 1805 in Sharon, Vermont), moved his family seven times in fourteen years.
No wonder these wandering souls looked for solace in evangelical religion. Many of them, cut off from organized communities and traditional social relationships, became seekers looking for signs and prophets and for new religious explanations for the bewildering experiences of their lives. These ordinary people came together anywhere they could—in fields, barns, or homes—to lay hands on one another, to offer each other kisses of charity, to form new bonds of fellowship, to set loose their feelings both physically and vocally, and to Christianize a variety of folk rites. When there were no college-educated clergy to minister to their yearnings, they recruited leaders from among themselves, leaders like Kennan’s ancestor Thomas Kennan.
Kennan seems to glimpse some of the religious chaos and turmoil of this Second Great Awakening, but he has a hard time appreciating what he calls the “often pathetic, dramatic, but highly hysterical” nature of the revivalist appeals. Although Thomas was a New School Presbyterian, Kennan cannot quite believe that his ancestor could have been involved in arousing the “moanings, groanings, sobbings,” and the agonies of repentance of these “very unsophisticated people” in the same way that other evangelical preachers did. Although Kennan is himself a Christian believer, he does not have much patience with religious enthusiasm and doctrinal niceties. He dismisses Calvin himself, for example, as “a sadly confused man.”
With the death of Thomas in Ohio in 1843, Kennan concludes what he calls “the innocent stage in the Kennan family’s history.” By this he means that the first three American generations of his family never lived in any large urban community and thus never partook of “the artificialities of urban culture.” They were simple, practical rural people, farming people. Kennan admits that running a single-family farm was far from an “idyllic” mode of life. But he cannot help believing that this rural mode of life “bred, or tended to breed, strong people—strong both physically and emotionally.” It inculcated “certain qualities of self-reliance, independence, individual responsibility, and pride of landownership that played a unique role in the shaping of character.” The independent family farm “proved to be a strong and usually successful arrangement of human society, capable not only of maintaining a high level of human quality but of bequeathing that capability to its immediate posterity.”
As painstakingly honest as he has been as a historian, Kennan has created a New England rural scene with much missing from it. In his simple farming world there are no markets, no suits for debt, no scrambling to amass land, no bitter fights over boundaries, land titles, or the location of meeting houses, no family squabbles. Although Kennan has almost no evidence of the emotional lives of his twenty-eight ancestors, he is confident that all were “‘whole’ persons, content with their background, afflicted with feelings of neither inferiority nor of superiority vis-à-vis others, pretending to be nothing other than what they actually were.” He is “unable to find among them a single weakling, a single physical invalid, a single crook, or a single villain.”
Kennan is a great believer in the power of heredity, by which he apparently means more than genes. He knows that only 3 percent of his genetic makeup is derived from the first Kennan to arrive on American shores. Nonetheless, he seems convinced that these early New England farmers have passed on to him and to other descendants of New Englanders some of their qualities of independence and character. Perhaps they have, as one might conclude from his own case, but their background deserves more scrutiny. His ancestors’ characteristic desire for independence, for example, he suspects was “inherited from their Scottish ancestors but destined to be passed on from father to son as long, down to the present, as the family was known under the name of Kennan.” Wanting to identify his ancestors’ culture with the culture of all New England, he believes that most New England immigrants came from “the predominantly Protestant regions of northern England and southern Scotland.” In fact, however, most migrants to colonial New England came from East Anglia and the West Country of England, as the names of the early New England towns—Boston, Lynn, Plymouth, Bristol, etc.—should have told him.
In the end Kennan believes that the New England that he has created in this family history is dying and was beginning to die even in the early nineteenth century, its importance in American life reduced “by the huge quantities of immigrants of other cultures, other religions, and other tongues now flowing into the entire North American continent.” At ninety-seven Kennan is not optimistic about the future of the country, and this little book helps us to understand why he feels this way. In this sense it is a sad tale by America’s last gentleman.
February 22, 2001