• U.S.

The Nation: Children of the Founders

11 minute read

If the new immigrants are a bridge to the nation’s future, another disparate group of people provide a very special link to America’s past. They are the direct descendants of the 56 remarkable farmers, traders, lawyers and physicians who signed the Declaration of Independence. Countless thousands of heirs of the signers are scattered throughout the nation, and TIME has interviewed a representative dozen of them. In their politics and professions, their attainments and attitudes, they are diverse, but they share many common opinions. All passionately support the ideal of democratic government, while recognizing the imperfections of the government they have. Some of their views about the nation and what they believe their illustrious ancestors would feel if they stepped out of a time machine and could see America today:

ARCHIBALD COX, 64, a sixth-generation descendant of Connecticut’s Roger Sherman, won acclaim as the Watergate special prosecutor who insisted that a President, like any citizen, is accountable under the law. Now back at Harvard as a law professor. Cox believes the Watergate drama was a profound affirmation of the faith that the Declaration of Independence places in ordinary citizens. For him, “the most moving scene” occurred when Watergate grand jurors—”a fair cross section of men and women, black and white”—were polled one at a time by Judge John J. Sirica about whether they wished to subpoena the taped conversations of President Nixon. “I wondered whether they would stand firm. Each one did. Now suppose Roger Sherman had walked into that courtroom at that time. Would he not have said, ‘This is just the way it should happen. Here are the representatives of the people of the United States calling their highest official to account.’ ”

In Cox’s view, the framers of the Declaration were “supreme realists who had no illusions about the new nation they had founded.” They did not expect it to be perfect. Says he: “Democracy is frequently diverted. It’s slow, and it takes a lot of wasted effort. I do believe in progress, as the framers did. A lot of people think that because they can’t have the millennium tomorrow, democracy isn’t worth the effort. But that’s not what human life has ever been about. Roger Sherman and the other patriots would not have been so obsessed with what was wrong or so blind to the accomplishments, as many people are now.”

YUKIKO IRWIN, who attended both Tokyo Women’s Christian College and Indiana University, is descended from Benjamin Franklin. She lives in Manhattan, where she is an expert in shiatzu, a finger-pressure therapy similar to Chinese acupuncture. Her grandfather, a Philadelphia trader, went to Japan in 1866 and wed a local woman in the first legally sanctioned marriage of an American and a Japanese. Her father also married a Japanese.

Mixed parentage made her feel wholly at home neither in Japan (where she lived until 1953) nor in the U.S., but now she feels more comfortable in America because of its “vastness.” Today she believes America is plagued with self-doubt, as Japan was just after World War II, but she retains confidence in America “because it is such a dynamic country. There is always new blood being transfused into it, and its body never grows old.”

ELMER ROBERTS, 53, a Los Angeles County probation officer, claims lineage to Thomas Jefferson through Jefferson’s black slave and reputed mistress Sally Hemings. Roberts, a widower, doubts that racial equality has progressed sufficiently in 200 years. Though Roberts concedes that “the country has made progress in race relations in the past few decades,” he still thinks of it “as a glass half empty rather than a glass half full.”

Jefferson, he says, would be “unhappy about man’s inability to learn anything about living with his fellow man, despite all the advances in technology.” His ancestor would also be distressed by the rise of Big Government. Says Roberts: “He would be unhappy with the bureaucracy because farmers are very independent people.”

JEAN DANA, 45, a well-to-do Greenwich, Conn., housewife, is descended from three signers of the Declaration of Independence: Oliver Wolcott, William Floyd and Elbridge Gerry. Should they see America today, they “would scratch their heads and ask, ‘What did we create? How did it happen?’ When you remember it happened only 200 years ago, it is just incredible, fantastic.” She refers primarily to technological progress and deplores the fact that in some areas, “such as man getting on with man, we have made very little progress.” Mrs. Dana laments the traumas of war, Watergate and congressional scandals, but she is aware that “there was also corruption in the first Governments of the United States.” By periodically cleansing itself of corrupt elements, as it is able to do under its system of government, the nation has survived —and will survive.

OLIVIA ALEXANDER TAYLOR, 85, is a great-great-great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and lives with her sister Margaret, 88, not far from Jefferson’s Monticello estate in Virginia. An alert, lively spinster and retired teacher, Olivia Taylor regards Jefferson as “a very real presence in my family. He gave us a firm desire to live up to some of his qualities —integrity, intelligence and courage.” Having a famous ancestor like Jefferson, she adds, “makes you try harder.” Today, she says, “I’m unhappy about the country. We don’t get the kind of leadership we should. The right kind of men don’t go into politics.” What would Jefferson think if he could see the nation now? “He was fond of gadgets, so he would have been intrigued with the labor-saving devices of modern society. But the billboards, the urban jungle of signs and poles would have appalled him.” And, she adds, “I think all those signers would be shocked by our loss of personal liberty—our liberty to move around, to be safe in our homes and on the streets.”

THOMAS BOYISTON ADAMS, 65, treasurer of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston, traces his ancestry to John Adams. An articulate Yankee patrician whose appearance and speech evoke the image of his famous ancestor, Adams notes that the founders of the nation “never believed they had all the answers. They believed there would be future enlightenment.” He laments the erosion of that idea, the impatience with a governmental system that is constantly evolving. He points to periods in history where one or even two of the three branches of Government failed, but the other—most often the judiciary —came to the rescue. Insists Adams: “Our tripartite Government has worked.” But now he cautions that the judiciary must be prevented from becoming too autocratic.

Adams also fears that “we have almost eliminated public discussion in this country. How the devil we are going to restore it, I don’t know. There might be something in these citizen-band radios. One can almost imagine the time when they might be used by people who had political ideas and wished to express them to a larger public.”

ALEXANDER FRANKLIN HERMAN GOETZ, 38, a supervising geophysicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif, is descended from scientifically gifted Ben Franklin. Though he is highly competitive, Goetz deplores the emphasis on competition in American life. “People in the U.S. are involved in competition for money, status and jobs and therefore are perhaps not as concerned about one another as they should be.” Still, he recognizes that such rivalry enabled the U.S. to progress. “As Franklin said, you work real hard, and you are just a little bit better, and you’re a success in business.”

Goetz is something of a pessimist: “The aspirations and ideals still exist in America, but we don’t have anywhere to go.” He thinks the poor and undereducated are trapped in a society where technology is reducing rather than expanding opportunities. Even so, he finds the U.S. “more tolerant of ideas than we used to be. We don’t have a heavy religion trip laid on us any more, and we don’t have the tyranny of the shopkeepers.”

ARTHUR MIDDLETON WILLIAMS, 61, of Charleston, S.C., who is descended from Arthur Middleton of South Carolina, is less sanguine. He is convinced that his ancestor would be disturbed by “some of the restrictions that have been put on the powers of the states. I think America came into being as a country with very strong states’ rights. The original signers would be very much concerned about [subsequent] restraints.”

Williams, who is president of South Carolina Electric and Gas Co. and a former school-board member, is also worried about recent political scandals. “I’m sure there were scandals in their day, but I don’t think anything could approach what’s going on today.” If Arthur Middleton were alive today, says Williams, he would be struck by the leadership role the U.S. has achieved since the 18th century and the resilience of its people.

GRACE FLOWERS, 31, made her society debut in Norfolk in 1964; soon after, she marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Georgia. Now she is an aide at Democratic Party headquarters in Atlanta. When she witnessed “up close” the black-white struggle in the Deep South, she could no more remain passive, she says, than could her ancestor, Declaration Signer Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. After the civil rights battles of the ’60s, Flowers was dismayed by the wave of assassinations and “the concentration of so much power in so few hands and so much secrecy during the Nixon Administration.” Now she is unabashedly optimistic about the nation’s future.

She believes that if Edward Rutledge were alive today, “he would consider our national prospects to be very good. We’ve got a strong defense budget and a conservative fiscal policy. We’re having an economic upsurge, and I think he would be glad to see that a Southerner has a very good chance of becoming President.”

THOMAS PAINE, 28, a landscape architect, and his brother CHARLES PAINE, 24, an engineer, are descendants of Robert Treat Paine of Massachusetts. Thomas believes if their ancestor were alive today, he would “be a consumer advocate, something like Ralph Nader. He would work outside the political parties to clean up politics because he would sense a feeling of hopelessness within our political life.” Not so, says Charles: “I think Robert Treat Paine would see our democracy as still pretty vital.” Thomas agrees, noting that “democracy is working, but there is a tremendous lack of people in public life whom one can believe and be inspired by.” But, Charles argues, “democracy, with all its countervailing forces, is the best way to prevent abuse. There is no better system around.”

Says Thomas: “It’s so easy to criticize and so hard to change things radically. That was what was so wrong with the ’60s. That is the difference between those revolutionaries who meant so well but didn’t get us too far and the revolutionaries of our 200-year history who really knew where to take us.”

ROBERT LIVINGSTON KREIDLER, 39, a Cincinnati lawyer, traces his ancestry to Philip Livingston and jokes that “the Livingstons haven’t done anything since.” He and his wife Franny and two sons live in an old gracious residential area. He is active in sports organizations and the General Society of Colonial Wars.

Kreidler believes his ancestors, if alive today, would “probably be conservative Republicans without being mossbacks. In the beginning, they didn’t favor independence, but they did favor firm resistance to encroachments—to being taxed without consent.” He also conjectures that his ancestors would not want to hold political office today because it is a full-time occupation. “The problem with Congress is that it’s run by professional politicians who are out of touch with the country. They are not like the citizen legislators the country had in the beginning.”

Kreidler is happy about the Bicentennial. Says he: “This year came around at just the right time, after Watergate and all we have been through. You think of the problems we have, and you see that certainly the problems of our country’s founders were much greater. The American dream, people are finding, is still a valid dream.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com