This essay of mine first appeared in our EWGS Bulletin back in September 2008. I think it's still a worthwhile read today.
Tradition Is A Chronic Deceiver
Tradition is a chronic deceiver and those who put total faith in it are self-deceivers. This is not to say that tradition is always false. But sometimes a small falsehood lies at the base of the tradition and gets increasingly “blown up” as the years go by……especially if it was a claim of grandeur in the first place. To show how quickly and easily a tradition emerges out of nothing, let us invent a story.
During the presidency of the first
a humble Adams family is living in a frontier
settlement. The Adams boy is asked by another
whether he is related to the great man. The boy is intrigues; if a kinship can
be claimed he will be able to hold his own against the sheriff’s son when
boasts of parental importance are made. So he takes the question to old
Granther Adams as the most likely to know. The aged man, his own days of
activity over, becomes animated when thus appealed to as an authority on the
family history. Well, now, he doesn’t rightly know, but when he was living as a
young blade back in New England, he once met a man named Adams in a tavern and
come to talk things over they were related somehow and he had heart it said as
how this man he was talking with was connected with the Braintree Adamses. Come
to think of it, there probably was a connection way back. Yes, sir, wouldn’t be
surprised if there was.
The elated youngster next day, when exchanging boasts with the sheriff’s son, proudly announces that he is related to President Adams. Why back, of course, but it was the same family. His grandfather told him, and he guessed his grandfather knew what he was talking about.
Well, twenty-five years later the
youngster is a man of affairs with boys of his own. The Adams
myth, from constant retelling in his own boyhood, has become fixed in his mind
as an implacable fact, true as gospel. He could not repeat exactly, if asked to
do so, the maundering words of his grandfather, but he was certainly left with
a distinct impression that a relationship existed. In all these years, the
reality of the claim never has been disproved, probably not even challenged.
When with pride he tells his own boys about the Adams
family, he believes he is telling the strict truth. Yes, boys, we belong to the
same family as President Adams; I had it straight from my grandfather’s own
Thus in a quarter of a century a strong enduring tradition has completed its miraculous growth. Thus do the tiny seeds of vanity germinate and produce the towering trees of an illustrious family.