The Genealogical Craze by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

There undoubtedly is something in the American temperament that prevents our doing anything in moderation. If we take up an idea, it is immediately run to exaggeration and then abandoned, that the nation may fly at a tangent after some new fad. Does this come from our climate, or (as I am inclined to think) from the curiously unclassified state of society in our country, where so few established standards exist and so few are sure of their own or their neighbors’ standing? In consequence, if Mrs. Brown starts anything, Mrs. Jones, for fear of being left behind, immediately “goes her one better” to be in turn “raised” by Mrs. Robinson.

In other lands a reasonable pride of birth has always been one of the bonds holding communities together, and is estimated at its just value. We, after having practically ignored the subject for half a century, suddenly rush to the other extreme, and develop an entire forest of genealogical trees at a growth.

Chagrined, probably, at the small amount of consideration that their superior birth commanded, a number of aristocratically minded matrons united a few years ago as “Daughters of the Revolution,” restricting membership to women descended from officers of Washington’s army. There may have been a reason for the formation of this society. I say “may” because it does not seem quite clear what its aim was. The originators doubtless imagined they were founding an exclusive circle, but the numbers who clamored for admittance quickly dispelled this illusion. So a small group of the elect withdrew in disgust and banded together under the cognomen of “Colonial Dames.”

The only result of these two movements was to awaken envy, hatred, and malice in the hearts of those excluded from the mysterious rites, which to outsiders seemed to consist in blackballing as many aspirants as possible. Some victims of this bad treatment, thirsting for revenge, struck on the happy thought of inaugurating an “Aztec” society. As that title conveyed absolutely no idea to any one, its members were forced to explain that only descendants of officers who fought in the Mexican War were eligible. What the elect did when they got into the circle was not specified.

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The “Social Order of Foreign Wars” was the next creation, its authors evidently considering the Mexican campaign as a domestic article, a sort of family squabble. Then the “Children of 1812” attracted attention, both groups having immediate success. Indeed, the vogue of these enterprises has been in inverse ratio to their usefulness or raison d’être, people apparently being ready to join anything rather than get left out in the cold.

Jealous probably of seeing women enjoying all the fun, their husbands and brothers next banded together as “Sons of the Revolution.” The wives retaliated by instituting the “Granddaughters of the Revolution” and “The Mayflower Order,” the “price of admission” to the latter being descent from some one who crossed in that celebrated ship-whether as one of the crew or as passenger is not clear.

It was not, however, in the American temperament to rest content with modest beginnings, the national motto being, “The best is good enough for me.” So wind was quickly taken out of the Mayflower’s sails by “The Royal Order of the Crown,” to which none need apply who were not prepared to prove descent from one or more royal ancestors. It was not stated in the prospectus whether Irish sovereigns and Fiji Island kings counted, but I have been told that bar sinisters form a class apart, and are deprived of the right to vote or hold office.

Descent from any old king was, however, not sufficient for the high-toned people of our republic. When you come to think of it, such a circle might be “mixed.” One really must draw the line somewhere (as the Boston parvenu replied when asked why he had not invited his brother to a ball). So the founders of the “Circle of Holland Dames of the New Netherlands” drew the line at descent from a sovereign of the Low Countries. It does not seem as if this could be a large society, although those old Dutch pashas had an unconscionable number of children.

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The promoters of this enterprise seem nevertheless to have been fairly successful, for they gave a fête recently and crowned a queen. To be acclaimed their sovereign by a group of people all of royal birth is indeed an honor. Rumors of this ceremony have come to us outsiders. It is said that they employed only lineal descendants of Vatel to prepare their banquet, and I am assured that an offspring of Gambrinus acted as butler.

But it is wrong to joke on this subject. The state of affairs is becoming too serious. When sane human beings form a “Baronial Order of Runnymede,” and announce in their prospectus that only descendants through the male line from one (or more) of the forty noblemen who forced King John to sign the Magna Charta are what our Washington Mrs. Malaprop would call “legible,” the action attests a diseased condition of the community. Any one taking the trouble to remember that eight of the original barons died childless, and that the Wars of the Roses swept away nine tenths of what families the others may have had, that only one man in England (Lord de Ros) can at the present day prove male descent further back than the eleventh century, must appreciate the absurdity of our compatriots’ pretensions. Burke’s Peerage is acknowledged to be the most “faked” volume in the English language, but the descents it attributes are like mathematical demonstrations compared to the “trees” that members of these new American orders climb.

When my class was graduated from Mr. McMullen’s school, we little boys had the brilliant idea of uniting in a society, but were greatly put about for an effective name, hitting finally upon that of Ancient Seniors’ Society. For a group of infants, this must be acknowledged to have been a luminous inspiration. We had no valid reason for forming that society, not being particularly fond of each other. Living in several cities, we rarely met after leaving school and had little to say to each other when we did. But it sounded so fine to be an “Ancient Senior,” and we hoped in our next school to impress new companions with that title and make them feel proper respect for us in consequence. Pride, however, sustained a fall when it was pointed out that the initials formed the ominous word “Ass.”

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I have a shrewd suspicion that the motives which prompted our youthful actions are not very different from those now inciting children of a larger growth to band together, blackball their friends, crown queens, and perform other senseless mummeries, such as having the weathercock of a departed meeting-house brought in during a banquet, and dressing restaurant waiters in knickerbockers for “one night only.”

This malarial condition of our social atmosphere accounts for the quantity of genealogical quacks that have taken to sending typewritten letters, stating that the interest they take in your private affairs compels them to offer proof of your descent from any crowned head to whom you may have taken a fancy. One correspondent assured me only this month that he had papers in his possession showing beyond a doubt that I might claim a certain King McDougal of Scotland for an ancestor. I have misgivings, however, as to the quality of the royal blood in my veins, for the same correspondent was equally confident six months ago that my people came in direct line from Charlemagne. As I have no desire to “corner” the market in kings, these letters have remained unanswered.

Considering the mania to trace descent from illustrious men, it astonishes me that a Mystic Band, consisting of lineal descendants from the Seven Sages of Greece, has not before now burst upon an astonished world. It has been suggested that if some one wanted to organize a truly restricted circle, “The Grandchildren of our Tripoli War” would be an excellent title. So few Americans took part in that conflict-and still fewer know anything about it-that the satisfaction of joining the society would be immense to exclusively-minded people.

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There is only one explanation that seems in any way to account for this vast tomfoolery. A little sentence, printed at the bottom of a prospectus recently sent to me, lets the ambitious cat out of the genealogical bag. It states that “social position is assured to people joining our order.” Thanks to the idiotic habit some newspapers have inaugurated of advertising, gratis, a number of self-elected society “leaders,” many feeble-minded people, with more ambition than cash, and a larger supply of family papers than brains, have been bitten with a social madness, and enter these traps, thinking they are the road to position and honors. The number of fools is larger than one would have believed possible, if the success of so many “orders,” “circles,” “commanderies,” and “regencies” were not there to testify to the unending folly of the would-be “smart.”

This last decade of the century has brought to light many strange fads and senseless manias. This “descent” craze, however, surpasses them all in inanity. The keepers of insane asylums will tell you that one of the hopeless forms of madness is la folie des grandeurs. A breath of this delirium seems to be blowing over our country. Crowns and sceptres haunt the dreams of simple republican men and women, troubling their slumbers and leading them a will-o’-the-wisp dance back across the centuries.

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