Editor’s Note: The piece is the first in a five-part series.
One of the most heuristic things ever said about a member of my family was said by William Bradford, governor of Plymouth colony, the early American settlement located in what would, at a later day, become the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Writing in his memoir, Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford said of my paternal ancestor William Brewster, “He was tenderhearted and compassionate of such as were in misery but especially of such as had been of good estate and rank and were fallen unto want and poverty.” What was remarkable in that encomium, of course, was not the contention that Brewster was a nice man. Down through the centuries, the record would probably confirm that my family has produced at least one nice man every generation or so. What was remarkable was that Brewster was revered not so much for his work in comforting the afflicted as for his success in comforting the formerly comfortable. As the Elder — the spiritual leader, that is to say — of a small band of English Christians who decamped first to Leiden, Holland, and then to America in 1620 on the good ship Mayflower, Brewster was tending to a relatively well-placed and well-connected flock. These were merchants and farmers, men of the law, men of the Book.
These Pilgrims, as they came to be called, were not low-born or criminal elements fleeing authority in search of a second chance. (For the footloose and felonious, conveniently, there would soon be Australia.) These were proper Englishmen, some of them educated, which was rare in those days, and most of them with “good prospects.” What set them apart from the rest of their countrymen was a determination to worship God according to their own lights, free from the constraints imposed by the almighty Church of England, and free as well from an English king increasingly given to what the Pilgrims perceived to be papist tendencies. These Pilgrims were men and women willing and in notable cases eager to subordinate the temporal to the transcendent. They were, as history would later inscribe, the brave souls who brought across a vast ocean and then planted in the hard soil of New England the radical and very American idea of religious freedom. That idea took root, deep root. Almost two centuries later, the Constitution’s framers would begin the First Amendment this way: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Another way of looking at that hardy congregation huddled aboard the Mayflower, of course, is to say that they were a boatload of religious fanatics, led in matters religious by the most fanatical congregant among them — my man Brewster.
My mother’s family arrived somewhat later. She was a descendant of John Winthrop, who arrived in New England aboard the Arbella in 1630. He settled on the shores of Massachusetts Bay and, as a dogged and competitive sort, busied himself with the task of building a community superior to Plymouth, which was situated just a few miles down the Atlantic coast. Winthrop was a drumbeater. He is perhaps best known to history for urging his fellow colonists to appreciate that the eyes of the world were upon them and that, accordingly, they should “consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill” — that is, that they should conduct themselves so as to serve as shining examples for those left behind in Old England. (Notable political figures, Ronald Reagan prominent among them, would consider Winthrop’s exhortation to be the fons et origo of the worldview known today as “American exceptionalism.”)
Winthrop was a man of this world and less so of the next. He was, in the contemporary formulation, a community organizer: The trains, had they yet been invented, would surely have run on time. In matters of the spirit he made even Brewster look like a theological wimp. Winthrop looked with undisguised disdain on the loose, disorganized ways of Plymouth: His own Puritans were, in his estimate at least, much improved versions of Brewster’s Pilgrims. In return, the Pilgrims set the pattern for the next 400 years of American immigration by looking askance at the bumptious Puritans who “came later.” (To the 21st-century eye, it should be conceded, the distinction between the two groups seems without much difference.)
Winthrop had a taste for rhetorical combat and a wont for doctrinal scab-picking. In one such occasion, he incited a canonical fight of obscure origin with a young woman who lived just across the street, a firebrand named Anne Hutchinson. She and her band of followers, all of whom in Winthrop’s unsparing view had wandered from the true Christian path, were ultimately driven from the Massachusetts Bay colony into the wilds of Rhode Island, where Hutchinson became a major colonial figure in her own right. The true path for most New Englanders in those formative years was pretty much what John Winthrop said it was. (I should note for the record that I find my distant cousin John Winthrop, who is entitled but has so far declined to affix the Roman numeral XI to his surname, to be not in the least bit censorious. It is widely believed, in fact, that he is the nice man in my own generation.)
Brewster and Winthrop — my men, my founding fathers.
We have by this point established that the writer of these words is, roughly speaking, the WASPiest man in America. Verily, I have been bred within an inch of my life and could be installed neither painted nor powdered as a free-standing exhibit in the Peabody Museum. Curators there might extract a princely sum from tourists seeking selfies with the one and only WASP Man.
But does this unusual genetic inheritance mean anything special? Does it mean that I was born on third base? Does it mean that as I make my way in life, ornate and filigreed doors swing open at my approach? Does it mean, for specific instance, that I will be invited to join the law firm of Cadwallader, Wickersham & Taft? (Just kidding. I like the sound of the place: The only name missing from the letterhead is that of my favorite Wodehouse character, Galahad Threepwood. For all I know, the firm may be run these days by three young women named Petrillo, Goldfarb, and Ulasciewisz.) Does it mean that I will be invited to join a snooty club like, say, The Knickerbocker? (The last time I was there it smelled like my grandmother’s house. You know, that smell. And the furniture was tatty.) Does it mean that I will be surrounded by rich girls? (It actually did mean that in my ill-spent youth. But as I was not the first to learn, rich girls tend to be pinched in their affections and guilt-stricken in their politics. Having fun with a rich girl can be hard work.)
Skipping to the bottom line, does the WASP inheritance include — you’ll excuse the expression — money? Does the bloodline carry with it downstream both a trust fund and the cosseting of family office? I’m glad you asked. The answer, at the tail end of a long line of desiccated WASPs, is almost always: Uh, not really.
In my own case, the family tree is festooned with the names of the well-born, the (frequently) well-meaning, and, here and there, the well-known. (A Ralph W. Emerson is recorded there, at the end of one twisty branch.) But men of affairs? Men of deed and daring? Men who, to be frank, did anything useful? Or made anything useful? Candles? Canoe paddles? Woolen socks? Pipe fittings? Uh, not really. There were preachers, lots of preachers — the Mather boys, Increase (once president of Harvard, of course) and Cotton, Jonathan Edwards, and a century-long skein of Moodys who pounded the pulpit to smithereens at the old First Parish Church in York, Maine. Many members of my attenuated tribe, in truth, could have used some of Brewster’s anodyne touch, and especially those many kinfolk who “had been of good estate and rank and were fallen unto want.”
Happily, I had no such problem myself. While I was privileged to move in uptown circles and to attend elite schools, I knew from an early age that, socially advantaged as I was, there would be waiting for me in adulthood no — you’ll excuse the expression — money. My wife and I got married in the old-fashioned way. Thanks to student loans, we began our life together just like real Americans — with a negative net worth.
That was the good part of my WASP inheritance: a more or less honorable past, a clear eye, and a piece of open road stretching endlessly forward into the American future. It was all good. What there was of it, at any rate. There was one thing missing. Neither Brewster nor Winthrop nor any of those voluble preacher-men following on behind them had bequeathed to me their own faith in God. A critical omission, that. It must be in there somewhere, I’ve long thought, packed in alongside the memories of prep schools and happy pants and sailing regattas, not to mention my own metronomically regular attendance at Episcopal churches up and down the East coast. It must have been in there, I thought, but I just couldn’t find it. I was white, Anglo, and Saxon. That much was self-evidently plain. But was I really Protestant? Was I worshipping God according to my own lights? Was I even a non-denominational believer? Even now, it pains me to admit that I was not.