Understanding Our Ancestors

As we know, Amazon reviews can make entertaining reading. Occasionally you have to remind yourself those reviewers actually saw the same film, or read the same book. Sometimes the strikingly different takeaways are even found one right after another:

Those are just two examples of a slew of “180 degree” opposing reactions to a film set in the mid-1800s. Understand I write as someone who has spent much of my life in “history” so perhaps I am extra-sensitive to this matter. Or maybe I have just become too familiar with the 1700s-1800s.

The film itself is beside the point. I thought I’d use those negative reviews to address this issue. What I was struck by were reviewers who tended to dismiss as “unrealistic” and/or belittle the formality, the sentimentality, and particularly the earnestness, of the characters in conversation.

However, before 1850 especially, people actually often did speak that way.

That criticism reveals to me a larger issue. We may mistakenly judge our ancestors by our standards. In this case, what some of us appear to forget is that our ancestors of centuries ago were often intensely sentimental, much more formal, and decidedly more earnest in ways that we are definitely not.

One aspect of that? Their letters are also often flowery and syrupy compared to how we write today. But, again, that was how they tended to express themselves…

Excerpt from “Conventions” on Kindle for iPad. Click to enlarge.

That is fiction, but is based on real letters and is reflective of that era’s writing voice and style. An American mother penning a 1790 letter to a son who had sailed across to Europe several years before and knowing it is quite possible she may never see him again? She would tend to be quite effusive, tender, and by our standards “mushy,” and write as if she were indeed having a conversation with him all too far away.

In our world of instant communications, we are only rarely cut off from each other by physical distance. Families don’t “feel” their study abroad students may never come home. And those parents certainly do not think about their emails or Facebook messages not reaching their university student offspring a continent away.

We forget as well: those of 1790 may not have been formally educated, or at least had not been to school for very long. Often they had learned from the few books they read, which (in America and Europe) usually included a Bible, and by word of mouth. They did not have anywhere near the amount of information – and, arguably, disinformation – thrown at them that we see daily. (Thomas Jefferson had once noted that a man would “know” about as much if he never read a “newspaper” as if he did. Applicable to today too in some ways?) They were “ignorant” because ignorance was the norm. We have more “information” before us in one Sunday newspaper than most people 200 years ago read over the course of their lives.

Nor were they usually quite as cynical as we may be. If one reads letters Americans sent to Thomas Jefferson during his 1801-1809 presidency – there is a book which contains some of them – they are fascinating, often touching, and even heartbreaking at times. They are from often poorly-literate people struggling to write to their president praising him, or are widows begging for money, or are young men looking to impress him, or are others offering him military or foreign policy suggestions. Some occasionally berated him as well, and “freedom of speech” then being a relatively new concept that might have been a dangerous action on their parts; yet they believed they were entitled to speak their minds even to him and did not fear doing so. Indeed even the mere act of writing directly to the country’s chief executive? You can almost picture a man or a woman sitting before a fireplace writing carefully, fretting over poor grammar or misspellings – they apologize regularly in the letters for such – and taking their writing to him quite seriously. They believed he would read their letters; and he almost always did. Sometimes he even replied to them personally. Imagine one day finding a letter to you from President Jefferson himself turn up in your postal delivery at your remote home? It may have been treasured for the rest of a life.

And that pre-1850 life had a sense of “impermanence” that it does not generally have for us. Nearly all of our ancestors of that time were tougher and hardier physically than we are: the proof of that is that they were ALIVE at all. There was no such thing as good medical care. Most of us deriding our forebears from our super-comfortable 2017 would not even be living had we been born in their era alongside them: we would likely have died of a childhood illness. If we had luckily made it to adulthood, we might have watched helplessly, as George Washington did, while a 17 year old stepdaughter died right in front of us of what may have been an epileptic seizure. Or we may have been the husband who looked on much as Jefferson did while his wife developed diabetes – and there was of course NO treatment for that in the 1770s – during a pregnancy, killing her at age 33 in 1782.

There was no 911 or 999 to ring for help, no ambulance to rush to the house, no paramedics, no doctors (as we understand them), no hospital, no specialists who had any real clue. I’ve noted this before, but it is worth repeating: Jefferson had once admonished one of his daughters for failing to write to him regularly and reminded her that all he wished from her was that she mail him three words every morning: “We are well.”

The fraility of life to them had knock on impacts that today we cannot quite fathom. They were far more religiously devout because humanity clearly had few definitive answers to anything. Often they treasured their families and friends in ways that we perhaps take each other for granted. We look back at “those people” of a couple of centuries ago and also see social abuses like slavery as horrific, and they no doubt were; but most of them never saw a slave and did not live lives of leisure themselves. They labored from sun up to sundown, usually manually, day after day, year after year, often never seeing much money, until they became ill and died. They had hard lives of a sort few of us today face, and they coped as best they could without knowing any better. It just was what was.

Are their existences now becoming so alien to us in many ways that increasingly we have trouble putting ourselves into their mindsets? Are some of us losing the ability even to sympathize with our “great-great-great-great-grandparents?” Are we better able to, and even eager to, identify more with a “Wonder Woman,” or current day teen wizards awaiting fantastical trains on “Platform 9 & 3/4,” or the inhabitants of the “Outer Ring of Gestiamintan?” (I just made that last one up off the top of my head.)

One wonders too: What might they say to us?

“Your morals? Especially your casual intimacies?”

We have contraception. And wait until you see Tinder.

“And what hath becometh of Our Lord? Your churches are often but sparsely attended. How many of you have never read any of The Bible?”

We understand you need it because you just don’t know about facts and reality. But we don’t need a desert myth to cope. Do unto others, uh, is good enough for us.

“Yes, we see how you might think that be so. So you have learned also of life beyond the grave?”

Oh, no, we haven’t. But we don’t worry about it the way you do.

“Why not? Shall you, or those you cherish, never die?”


“Well, this world you have made is remarkable. You fly such as birds. Three of your soldiers could likely easily defeat General Washington’s finest regiment. Such knowledge. Such inventiveness. Surely you must have all you could possibly want? You worry but little about food and warmth. Your homes are dry and comfortable. When a child dies, ’tis a terrible shock to you. You live into your 80s and 90s and are often healthier at 80 than we are at 50. You have weekends. Even those of you in some want usually have a roof over your head, and often even an automobile…and, uh, what is its name again? An iPhone?”

(We try not to look too smug. But it isn’t easy.)

“Yet so many of you are still so dreadfully miserable? How is that possible? We but turn our gaze to those inhabiting your television glass and on your inter-net: all of the dissatisfaction that is voiced. You have endless amusements and diversions and ease of life. Do so many not know what they have? And your, uh, Twitter, as you call it? Why are those who write on it always so angry and vulgar so much of the time? You should awaken every morning the happiest of humans who have ever lived?”

While we’d no doubt impress them in numerous ways, I tend also to think our ancestors of a few centuries’ ago might well also feel a bit sorry for us, too.

Have a good Sunday, wherever you are in the world. 🙂