I have been a fan of genealogy for many years now, especially since my mother and father passed away. Studying my ancestry was a way I could feel more connected to them and to their histories. One of the interesting things I discovered while tracing my family line is that I am a fifth cousin to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famous author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Even though I am five generations removed from being her cousin, the shared heritage is still there.
Henry David Thoreau is my sixth cousin, also five generations removed. He is the famous author of Walden and other well-known works. US President Ulysses Grant is my fifth cousin five generations removed while US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was my sixth cousin, four generations removed. Grant was an author too and finished his personal memoirs shortly before he died. President Roosevelt published many books, though none of them were bestsellers.
So when I feel a compulsion to write a blog post, a magazine article or a book, (Torn Between Worlds: An illegal immigrant’s journey to find herself), I wonder if that is partly because the blood of other authors runs through my veins. One wonders whether shared DNA can also mean shared destiny?
Of course, being related to these four amazing people isn’t much of an accomplishment by itself. It’s more luck of the draw, not something I did but something I inherited upon my birth because of the ancestry of my mother’s father, Charles William Deland. His surname used to be Delano or De Lannoy from near Lille, France, but it was changed to Deland after several generations of ancestors lived in America. Because of the Delano connection, Grant, FDR and Thoreau are all related to each other and to me. Harriet Beecher Stowe hooked into the Deland line more recently, about the same time period as she was living.
What I admire about these four ancestors isn’t just that they were published authors and well-known public figures but that they all were honorable characters. Who they were as people is what attracts me to them. So let’s review the positive traits that stand out among these four in order of their birth.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was born June 14, 1811. One of the character traits she was known for was her integrity. She opposed slavery and used her intellect to write and publish a book opposing this unjust practice, at a time when many other White people were fine with it. She was brave, and not afraid to speak truth to power. This was all the more remarkable because when she published the anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851, women authors were not common. This made her doubly brave, to both highlight the cruelty of slavery when many Southerners, in particular, supported the practice and to speak out publicly as a woman author. The publication of her book helped open the eyes of more White people, turning many against the institution of slavery.
Henry David Thoreau was born July 12, 1817. He was an individualist, who was unafraid to confront others on behalf of his principles. He refused to pay a poll tax and spent a night in jail as a result. He used this time in jail to write a now famous essay on civil disobedience. This essay argues for disobedience to law when the state is unjust in its actions, such as when it allows the cruel and unjust practice of slavery. To write and publish such an essay took a lot of courage, just as Beecher Stowe showed courage for publishing her book when she did. They were both ardent abolitionists.
Thoreau is also famous for his book Walden, where he decided to live simply and alone out in the woods. Why did he do this? He explained in Walden:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”Henry David Thoreau
This part of Thoreau’s book made such a great impression on me when I read it in high school that I decided to major in philosophy in college. This would allow me to read more books of wisdom and depth, more books that were searching for life’s meaning.
Ulysses S. Grant was born April 27, 1822. As General Grant, he showed great courage in leading the Union in many battles to end the Civil War and keep the country united. He was a humble man who didn’t put on airs and treated everyone with respect. Grant was also an honest man, although when he was President others around him were not as honest. His trust in others hurt him both politically and financially.
As president, Grant worked hard to bring about reconciliation between the North and the South after the Civil War was over. The 15th Amendment was passed under the Grant Administration, giving Black men the right to vote. Grant also tried to limit activities of groups like the Ku Klux Klan that used violence to intimidate Blacks and prevent them from voting.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was born January 30, 1882. He was a man of principle and action. He was a man of courage, as in “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Roosevelt had the leadership skills to guide the US through the Great Depression and most of World War II. He also recognized that without help from the U.S., Britain might lose WWII and Hitler could then control all of Europe. So FDR did what he could to help British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the United Kingdom until he could bring the American public on board to directly support the Allies in the war.
So what do all of these four ancestors have in common? They were all people of integrity and principle. They were all courageous and willing to take a stand even at their own expense. They all understood that every person has worth and dignity, not just some people.
Life Lesson: I aspire to be like all four of them in the way I live my life. Thank you, ancestors, for showing me how it’s done. I pray I can live up to the examples you have set, in both word and deed, all the days of my life. May my life and my writing be a worthy tribute to you. God bless you, dear cousins.