Why is it desirable for each of us to have knowledge of his family’s history? There are many reasons, so let’s consider a few. For example, knowledge of one’s family history is one of the intangibles that combined in suitable proportions (sic) produce a truly cultured person. It is part of a liberal education and helps one understand himself, his potentialities and his responsibilities. Edmund Burk puts it this way, “People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.” And the kind of posterity we produce is our greatest responsibility.
As I have searched out my own family history, the history of our own country and the history of the culture to which we belong have taken on new significance. I have come to feel a personal relationship with those developments, a feeling that I had actually participated and was, to the best of my ability, responsible for the preservation of the goals achieved. Our country and our culture just didn’t happen. Both are the end products of a long series of struggles, sacrifices and hardships. Each of my ancestors contributed his fair share toward the ultimate goals. Some did better than others, of course, but one of the greatest inspirations and rewards to come from these studies is the knowledge that each met the problems of his day to the best of his ability and to the extent of his resources.
A knowledge of our family’s history should and will bring us into more intimate contact with those who have lived before us. After all, history is people and when the people are our own forefathers and their kin, can anyone suggest a more interesting and absorbing chronicle? And what of family heirlooms? Why do we preserve them and pass them on from generation to generation? Because, in a sense, they enable us to touch those who have preceded us. They are tangible links with real people who have contributed to our life stream and to the development of our culture. We should receive stimulus from the knowledge that we are living in close proximity to persons who may seem to be legendary but who actually were alive and used and valued these mementoes.
Can history help us understand the present? I think it can. None of us is an accident. In the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. there is a stone plaque which read, “What is past is prologue.” History doesn’t give us a key to the future, but it does give us a sense of confidence in the future. Our family has passed through some very difficult days, but it did pass through them and it did maintain its integrity and devotion to high principles. This knowledge and certainty makes us feel that we will continue in the future. We represent a long effort, each generation building on the foundations laid by those who were here but now are gone.
A knowledge of our family’ history also should be a source of strength to us. As we traveled through Britain in 1961, we began to understand and to appreciate the source of the Briton’s courage and self-confidence. He is surrounded by evidence of his achievements and his libraries, museums and archives are filled with information, mementoes and records of those achievements. He knows he can do it, he did it in the past, and he can do it again. Less fortunate people may find the Briton’s self-confidence irritating, the more so, if they lack understanding or are influenced by prejudice.
The care and perseverance shown by the British in this endeavor may be unique, particularly in Scotland where Celtic customs and traditions are best preserved. The Celtic concept holds that the family has neither beginning nor ending. It always has been and always will be. Each member is a part of the larger entity and to that extent is responsible for the reputation and welfare of the whole.
Daniel Webster has left us his thoughts on the value of a knowledge of one’s family history and since they may not be readily available to many, I am quoting them here. He writes:
“There is a moral and philosophical respect for our ancestors which elevates the character and improves the heart. Next to the sense of religious duty and moral feeling, I hardly know what should bear with stronger obligation on a liberal and enlightened mind than a consciousness of an alliance with excellence which is departed, and a consciousness, too, that in its acts and conduct, and even in the sentiments and thoughts, it may be actively operating on the happiness of those who come after it.”
If authority were needed to justify the pursuit of information relating to one’s ancestors, and in a broader sense, a knowledge of one’s race and the culture to which he belongs, he will find it in the Bible. The book of Isaiah (51:1-2) contains this admonition; “Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father and unto Sarah that bare you; for I called him alone, and blessed him and increased him.”
Edward P. Breakey, PhD