Gongol.com Archives: August 2021
In the abstract, 1776 seems like a very long time ago. But in terms of human life, it's really not that many generations before us. The usual shorthand says that a "generation" is about 30 years (somewhere around the mean age for a mother at childbirth), but many of us could find a path back to 1776 in our own family trees that might only require five or six generations. After all, the last widow of a Civil War veteran died in 2020. ■ Because we're really not that far removed from the generation of the Founders, it seems all that much more peculiar that we really never have developed much of a culture of family traditions in office. We can point to obvious exceptions to the rule (like the Kennedy family, who can't seem to quit running for office in Massachusetts and nearby states), but few other political family legacies endure past a second or third generation. ■ And there really aren't any that last back to the Founding generation. Washington had no children, nor did Madison. No powerhouse family political dynasties were set afoot by Adams, Monroe, or Hamilton. Jefferson likely produced quite a few children, but none were privileged to enter politics with his name. ■ It's not as though some of the Founders weren't trying to set up their offspring for success. Benjamin Franklin expressly pointed out in his autobiography the things that he hoped his descendants would learn from his own experience, writing, "I hope therefore that some of my Descendants may follow the Example and reap the Benefit." ■ No matter what one generation does to try to lay the groundwork for their children and generations to follow, people have to pick up those lessons and learn them on their own. It's a decision, and it turns out that it's pretty hard to listen to your great-great-great-grandfather. ■ But one of the really liberating aspects about a democratic system like ours is that everyone is at liberty to pick their own intellectual forbearers, even if they can't pick the ones who sent them their bloodline. Everyone makes choices about their intellectual heritage, whether consciously or not. Benjamin Franklin may not have been your great-great-great-grandfather by virtue of birth, but there's nothing to stop you or anyone else from adopting him as an intellectual ancestor. ■ We have a lot of Americans today who want to be considered patriots through the ease of their birth identity. That's hardly the American way. We're much better off looking to the people who choose the harder route of making deliberate choices about whose habits and practices of thought to adopt.