Reviews

The House of David

Descent from a Founding Father is a matter for celebration to thousands of sons and daughters of the American Revolution and members of the Cincinnati Society, Colonial Wars, First Families, and other sufficiently remote or proud groups. Americans are eager to claim, when they can, ancestry made noble by history if not by "blood."

The sad irony is that the scholars examining the histories of "founding" families have again and again traced a story marred by conflict, profligacy, and incompetence even when highlighted as well by brilliance, self-sacrifice, and accomplishment. The Adams family is a well-known example, though similar cases had been noted by commentators on the Roman imperium and chroniclers of the House of David long before there was a United States.

In his history of the family of Major Pierce Butler, Malcolm Bell Jr. has given another case in point. This traditional story of pride brought low and a fortune disputed and dissipated over generations is more than a family chronicle, however. Bell has used it to tell the story of slavery, its demise, and aftermath in the United States. Bell's protagonist, Butler, an impecunious younger son of an Irish baronet, married on the eve of the American Revolution into a wealthy South Carolina family with large holdings of plantations and slaves. When serving his adopted state at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, he was instrumental...

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