4th of July 2014

[Last year’s 4th of July post is here]

One thing I’ve noticed myself doing lately in conversation is finding excuses to bring up how far back I can trace my ancestry in America.

On my father’s side (hey look, I’m doing it again!), the Crandalls go back to Elder John Crandall, who came over from England in the early-mid 1600s. He was apparently an associate of Roger Williams, who established the state of Rhode Island. John Crandall — same name as my father — was among a group of two dozen souls that settled Westerly, RI (amazingly his homestead still stands, not far from a Wal-Mart). He seems to have been at least somewhat of a dissident-minded pilgrim, which would have endeared him to Williams, who sounds like my kind of guy for his progressive attitudes on slavery, native Americans, and religious freedom. Thomas Jefferson was known to quote Williams. So I reckon that gives me only a few degrees of separation from the Founding Fathers.

On my mother’s side, our first ancestor was 7-year-old Hugh Fraser. In 1707, legend has it little Hugh was kidnapped off the street in Paisley, Scotland and shipped off to America as an indentured servant, ending up on a Maryland tobacco farm. Basically a trafficked child. As traumatic as it must have been, Hugh grew up to marry the owner’s daughter and take over the place. (I guess white privilege extends pretty far back as well, but that’s another discussion.)

The farm was on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, just across the water from where my mother lives now. The memorial for my mom’s companion Ed Becke, who passed away last year, was held in old St James Church, which existed during Hugh Fraser’s life 300 years ago. Maybe he heard of it, or went there at some point. Maybe I was sitting/standing/walking where he did the same. I find that incredible.

So there are two family links to pre-George Washington America. Not too shabby, as my father might have said.

I love thinking about history in ways that make it more personal and resonant.

Lincoln would often ride his horse from his summer cottage to the White House, passing quite close to where I now live. He surveyed the burial of Civil War soldiers in the cemetery I pass going to my daughter’s ballet lessons. Lincoln’s son Robert died a few years after my house was built — within the house’s ‘living memory’ if you will — which somehow brings Lincoln himself closer.

My parents were married by James Reeb, a Unitarian minister and civil rights activist who would later be murdered by white racist thugs in Selma in the early 1960s. Another reason I haven’t quite forgiven the South yet. His death sparked a national outcry that helped bring about the Voting Rights Act, which Lyndon Johnson signed into law, it so happens, on the day of my birth. Reeb officiated the wedding at All Souls Church, where my parents first met, and where more recently we had my father’s memorial service.

So why bring all this up, aside from a kind of bragging? I certainly believe America belongs to those who arrived yesterday just as much as 400 years ago. Seeing photos of the kids coming across the Mexican border lately, and imagining their plight, made me think of Hugh Fraser. As our country seems more and more unhinged, perhaps it just helps me feel more anchored in where we came from. And since many on the right often lay claim to the legacy of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, maybe I as a progressive feel compelled to point out that distant history is mine too. And not even that distant. I can learn about Roger Williams and his brave, ethical, humanist stances and think, yeah, I’d associate with that guy too.