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  • "The old race are all gone":Transatlantic Bloodlines and English Traits
  • Christopher Hanlon (bio)

In the third volume of his Vicissitudes of Families, published in 1863, the London genealogist John Bernard Burke reminisced over an American vogue for British pedigree in full swing during the decade prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War. Burke recalled that during these years, "the most intelligent and zealous of my genealogical clients were from the other side of the Atlantic, all yearning to carry back their ancestry to the fatherland, and to connect themselves in some way with historical associations" (288). Placing Massachusetts and particularly Boston as having been "more genealogical" than either Yorkshire or London during this period, Burke also recalls "that a very large sum was given at New York or Washington—I forget which—for the purchase of a perfect series of our English county histories, as the best sources of American genealogy" (288–89). Burke's remembrance reveals much about the fluctuating cultural capital through which transatlantic genealogists and their clients transacted business during the 1840s and 1850s. While complimentary of his American clientele as "intelligent and zealous" in their drive to situate themselves within a British lineage, Burke also jabs these clients for their provinciality, as registered in his own (provincial) inability or disinclination to distinguish New York from Washington ("I forget which") and in his mention of the "yearning" that marked these clients' aspiration to Anglicize themselves "in some way." It is their de facto provinciality that might produce Burke's clients' wish to claim British peerage, and which renders droll their longing to connect or concoct "historical associations" betwixt themselves and some stratum of Englishness. [End Page 800]

An 1856 reviewer of the ten-volume New England Historical and Genealogical Register at first seems to sneer at the growing appetite for British genealogy as un-American and un-democratic: "What, in this land of equality, where every man is as good as every other, can it be possible that any man believes his ancestors to have been greater and better than himself and his friends?" ("New England" 469). While imagining that "the subject of pedigree" bristles at the egalitarian ethos of republican America, the reviewer also attempts to authorize the vogue for "historical associations" out of which transatlantic genealogists like Burke built their careers; after all, "there is but little danger in acknowledging our taste for the noble and gentle science of heraldry and genealogy" since "no man ever rejoices in the fact that his grandfather made his exit with a hempen collar upon his neck" (469). Like Burke, the reviewer notes "the number of family records, or genealogical monographs, now extant in print, is much larger in America than in aristocratic England" even as he remarks, "How many there are, who have always classed genealogy and heraldry among the most senseless and offensive exhibitions of feudal pride! But since sober and practical America is the largest present producer, there must be in these documents some hidden elements of interest" (470).1

This burgeoning desire for British pedigree among many Americans of the 1840s and 1850s seems to register a heightening of American Anglophilia during the period. But it would be more accurate to notice these decades for a marked ambivalence in American attitudes toward England, and not simply for genealogists and their clientele. As Elisa Tamarkin has demonstrated, England exerted a fascination over many northeastern abolitionists who admired it not simply for its opposition to slavery, but as worth emulating in some more essential sense. British abolitionists not only underwrote the political agendas of their American counterparts by offering financial support and a tested symbology; they also came to incarnate some fundamental rectitude around which many abolitionists built a severe esteem. Tamarkin points out that "The 1840s and 1850s are filled with rhapsodies on just how clever Britain is—it is Britain that has spread an 'intellectual empire' across the globe and that has, says Ralph Waldo Emerson, 'inoculated all nations with her civilization, intelligence and tastes'" (455). In his journal of 1850, Emerson had commended the English for their "great directness, comprehension, health, and success" and also said that "My own quarrel with...


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