On the uses of genealogy

I often urge people to investigate their family tree, if they haven’t already done so. It’s becoming more common for people to be DNA-tested, and that has its uses, but genealogy really brings our ancestors to life by giving them names, locations, and many other details that make them flesh-and-blood people to us.

The following quote is from a book published in 1881, and oddly it seems especially appropriate for our time in which there is so much confusion about nationality, ethnicity, and our place in this multicultural Babel in which we live.

I’ve bolded the parts I find most pertinent to our situation:

“Ought any one to be entirely indifferent to the channels in which his own blood has come to him?

Whether it has flowed down in the veins of nobles or peasants, whether he has a reason before his fellow-men for honest pride in the exploits or for satisfaction with the mere respectability of his ancestors he surely has ground for desiring to know for himself what are his connections with the past. But irrespective of all reference to the utility of such knowledge, there is an instinct in all right minds which constrains them to such an interest. A part of the same respect and love which every true man feels for the father and mother who bore him is carried back to the whole line of his progenitors. The pleasure which most persons take in such studies springs therefore from one of the profoundest and most useful of human instincts. It deserves encouragement, among all classes of society.

There is nothing to make it more appropriate for the rich than for the poor. An honored and virtuous ancestry is quite as much a source of pride to such as have no other inheritance, as those who glory in large ancestral titles and estates. And it may be as powerful an incentive so to live as to command the veneration and esteem of coming generations. There may be some exaggeration, but there is truth in the motto of the American College of Heraldry, “He who careth not whence he came, careth little whither he goeth.”

It is for this reason, we think, that there are instincts in nature which prompt to this as to all moral duties. The common proverb, “Blood is thicker than water,” expresses a truth which is almost universally felt, and implies an affection seldom appealed to in vain. It may at times need development, and often may be overborne by stronger passions, but such a fortune it shares with all other mental qualities. It is, therefore, one of those deep principles which are “the inspiration of the Almighty that giveth understanding.”

Americans have sometimes been tempted to speak contemptuously of family descent and family history. An interest in such matters has not infrequently been reproached as if it were inconsistent with republican simplicity. If what we have said be true it is inconsistent only with an arrogation to oneself of those titles which come from royal or aristocratic prescription. The time is coming, and has already begun, when many must take a pure delight in recollecting the part which those dear to them took, not only in establishing our national independence but in maintaining our national unity. “Beyond the stimulus which the desire of distinction gives to those who are rising in the world there is an important benefit derived from the sentiment of family antiquity, in the tendency it has to unite and hold together the mass of those families which have a stake in the country for their mutual preservation. Those who look upon the nation as composed of its honorable and patriotic families will feel bound together by a sacred tie, and communities will no longer be regarded as an incongruous mass of adventurers, but as a brotherhood animated by a kindred spirit.”

Let us bring to test these suggestions by noticing the associations connected with the contemplation of a family tree. There may, or there may not be branches in that tree which have formed a shadow for a nation or a world; but for every one who is a branch in that tree, however insignificant, it will have an illumination to which he cannot be indifferent. As he traces the limbs in various directions, his sympathies will be likely to be drawn forth to a larger circle, his consciousness of capabilities will be deepened by the suggestion of what his own flesh and blood has accomplished, and a respect for a common association will prompt to a higher style of living. He can hardly fail to have his scheme of life enlarged when he becomes conscious of a community animated by “one blood.” He will begin to regard himself, not as a mere accretion upon a dead mass, but as a member of an organism pervaded by a life leaving no minute part without a common sympathy. For want of such a sentiment many a family has never attained its appropriate character and position.’

Conway P. Wing A Historical and Genealogical History of John Wing and his Descendants, 1881