Jun 15, 2021

Why Are We All So Obsessed with Genealogy?

I enjoyed this article and felt perhaps others might want to read the article by. Libby Copeland and published in the Literary Hub web site:

America has become a nation obsessed with genealogy. The mere existence of so many genealogical materials digitized, indexed, and searchable online, and our communal drive to find them, comes from a suite of personal and cultural motivations, as well as a complex history around the search for lineage. In his 2013 history of American genealogy, Family Trees, historian François Weil traces how the American impulse toward genealogy has often been in tension with itself. In the early days of the new American republic, Weil writes, the idea of establishing one’s family line was associated with the British aristocracy’s obsession with social rank, and viewed with suspicion by a society that saw itself as more egalitarian and forward-looking. Why would one be driven to document one’s ancestors, if not to prove some connection to better birth and station?

But over the course of the 19th century, that shifted, enough that by 1879 the New York Times could declare that “we are becoming the most genealogical nation on the face of the earth.” Weil writes that American genealogy transformed into a respectable middle-class endeavor as Americans began to justify and sanctify the activity within the context of family, which came to be viewed as an almost holy thing. The family “was viewed as a refuge from the outside world in an ever-changing environment,” Weil writes, and genealogy became a mechanism for remembering and solidifying that unit.

Besides, some Americans came to see the process of learning one’s family history as a moral endeavor—a person could learn much from what her ancestors had done right or wrong. Reframed within the context of republicanism and democratic ideals, genealogical inquiry could become the means to celebrate not just the richest and most titled of forebears, but even the humbler sort. One 1850s Pennsylvanian went so far as to boast of his family’s “mediocrity.” The practice of keeping one’s family history in a household bible had long been popular; now, middle-class New England families augmented those bibles with wall hangings of family registers and embroidered family trees.

You can read the full article at:

My thanks to newsletter reader Pierre Clouthier for telling me about this online article.