William Brewster does it again!

FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 2023

One of our favorite pet peeves: All kidding aside, it has seemed to us that President Biden is sometimes perhaps a tiny bit nutty about the people he calls "the Bidens."

For better or worse—we'll go with for worse—we Americans have established certain political families as our "royal families."

For better or worse, the Kennedys are often regarded that way. In a slightly strange departure from his sense that he comes from regular people / the salt of the earth, the president sometimes seems to regard "the Bidens" in something like the same way.

At any rate, President Biden has been in Ireland, an ancestral home. In yesterday's New York Times, a certain pet peeve was triggered by this news report:

SHEAR AND RODGERS (4/12/23): In Louth, Mr. Biden was joined on a tour of a castle by Rob Kearney, a retired professional rugby player who is his fifth cousin once removed. Both are related to John Finnegan and Mary Kearney, who were Mr. Biden’s great-great-great-grandparents.

In County Mayo on Friday, the president will tour the Family History Research Unit at the North Mayo Heritage and Genealogical Center, which has assembled a genealogical database with more than 1.2 million records to track the ancestry of people from the county.

For Mr. Biden, that history includes Edward Blewitt and Mary Mulderg (who was also known as Mary Reddington), his great-great-great-grandparents. 

Goofus thought the New York Times must have made a mistake. If Finnegan and Kearney were the president's great-great-great-grandparents, then how could Blewitt and Mulderg claim the same distinction?

Gallant quickly answered. "The typical person has quite a few sets of great-great-great-grandparents," the youngster politely replied.

Gallant's aim was true! Baring the occurrence of a phenomenon known as "pedigree collapse," a person will have one set of parents, two sets of grandparents, four sets of great grandparents, and so on all the way back.

By the time we reach the level of great-great-great grandparents ("third great grandparents") a person will have sixteen different sets of such ancestors. The Times report mentioned two of Biden's sets, with fourteen sets left to go!

As we've mentioned in the past, this becomes a pet peeve for us when we watch Finding Your Roots, the fascinating PBS program produced by Professor Gates. It seems to us that Professor Gates plays it a bit fast and loose at moments like this, from a recent show:

GATES: In December 1607, county officials got wind of the secret [religious] services that were taking place at your ancestor's home. They came after him and the others who practiced at his home.

TAMERA MOWRY: Oh my gosh.

GATES: Your 13th-great grandfather was a wanted man.

MOWRY: In the name of religion?

GATES: In the name of religion.

MOWRY: Ah. Okay.

GATES: William and his fellow separatists would go to great lengths to worship as they chose. After English authorities discovered their church, they were arrested and briefly imprisoned. Upon release, they fled to Holland. But they didn't remain there for long.

We next found William, along with his wife Mary and two of their sons, on the passenger list of a ship bound for the New World. Any idea what you're looking at?


GATES: You just read a list of passengers who sailed on the Mayflower.

MOWRY: You, I'm, I'm done.

(Gates laughing) 

GATES: You're descended from the original English people who came on the Mayflower, direct.

Your 13th great-grandfather, William Brewster, and his family—William's wife, Mary, is your 13th great-grandmother—they were there on the Mayflower. They were Pilgrims.

For the record, this wasn't the first time, this season alone, that Gates has traced someone's ancestry back to William Brewster. Two programs earlier, he was able to tell Angela Davis that Brewster was her tenth great-grandfather, as you can see in the transcript found at this link.

Please understand! We're not saying that Professor Gates' statements were inaccurate. It's just that everyone has a boatload on ancestors if we're able to trace things back that far.

Barring "pedigree collapse," how many sets of 13th great-grandparents do we the humans have?  By our calculation, the number would be 16,384—that's 16,384 separate sets of 13th great-grandparents!

If a genealogy can be traced back that far, a person has a lot of ancestors to choose from.  Indeed, if you aren't descended from William Brewster, that may be the actual news!

We actually had a friend in high school, all the way out in California, whose mother was descended from the Brewsters. Way back in the summer of '70, we motored from Cambridge down to Brewster, Mass. to drink in the atmospherics emanating from an old Cape Cod town with that particular name.

We sometimes think that Professor Gates glosses the way these numbers work as a way of creating interest. Which statement sounds more dramatic?

William Brewster is your 13th great-grandfather. How does that make you feel?


William Brewster is one of your 16,384 great grandfathers!
You can probably see what we mean. Not that there's anything wrong with it!

The professor's show is fascinating. That said, we don't think remarkable people like the Bidens would ever hide the shillelagh this way!


  1. What kind of person gets peeved when somebody takes pleasure in or gets excited about their family tree?

    1. People try to find meaning when there is no meaning. But why begrudge them?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. The point of Gates’ “finding your roots” isn’t merely for people to be surprised and elated that they are related to William Brewster or whomever.

    It IS that, but it is also to show how interconnected we all are ultimately, black and white. Doesn’t this serve to render the idea of “race” more dubious?

    Gates himself has said as much. He has also said that race is a construct. Even so, he feels that it is especially important for black people to find their roots, because their histories were ripped away from them because of slavery in the United States.

  4. ‘we Americans have established certain political families as our "royal families."’

    In what sense does Biden’s pride in his Irish ancestry and his middle class upbringing make him part of a “royal family?” There’s no Biden dynasty, no politician forbears, and none likely to follow him.

  5. "That said, we don't think remarkable people like the Bidens would ever hide the shillelagh this way!"

    No, the Bidens didn't invent the manner of speaking of one's great grandparents used by those who study genealogy.

    This, and the previous post of Biden's age, makes it seem like Somerby is working overtime to find something to cast Biden in a poor light. Actual liberals don't do that to their presumptive nominee for president, in advance of an election. And if this is the worst dirt Somerby can find on the Biden's, then they must be above reproach, because these are really trivial complaints.

  6. Speaking to the NRA, Trump said that hundreds of young people were storming department stores in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, stealing refrigerators and air conditioners while police stood by doing nothing because they weren't allowed to do their job. So I googled crime reports and found nothing supporting this statement.

    However, I did find a report in New York Forum Daily, a webpage that reports news about the US for Russian speakers. It described a gang operating in Brooklyn who were burglarizing homes and stealing refrigerators. I find myself wondering if Trump glanced through the headlines of that paper and that gave him the idea for his speech about crime. And then I found myself wondering why Trump reads a newspaper with a Russian audience.

    1. https://www.mediaite.com/politics/trump-claims-hundreds-of-thieves-have-been-carrying-refrigerators-away-from-department-stores-across-america/

  7. "William Brewster is one of your 16,384 great grandfathers!"

    That sounds like a lot of grandfathers until you consider how many people lived across those 13 generations who were not related to you at all.

    1. Just need to go back further, perhaps to Adam & Eve. We're all humans.

  8. The second amendment is evil.

    1. Sort of embodying the concept of banality of evil, aren’t you?

    2. You exemplify the anality of evil.

    3. @1:59 -- go look up banality of evil and find out what the phrase means.

    4. I know what the phrase means, think harder.

  9. Somerby makes a dubious claim about Americans - some nonsense about viewing political families as royalty - and then neglects to offer any evidence in support of said claim.

    Then Somerby asserts that Biden is engaging in that behavior as well…except with his own family…in another country…what? Is it Incoherent Day again?

    Were Somerby to offer some discourse on notions like cult of personality, or taking credit for other people’s/ancestor’s accomplishments (an apt way to define “culture”, I say), he’d have something potentially compelling. Instead, he seems to take credit for calculating a number, sets of grandparents, a calculation found within seconds of a Google search.

    Historical context is something Somerby would rather not consider when pushing his agenda of manufacturing ignorance.

  10. "All kidding aside, it has seemed to us that President Biden is sometimes perhaps a tiny bit nutty about the people he calls "the Bidens."

    What is nutty about caring about family? Somerby has referred to his own father and grandfather here often enough. The Irish themselves are sentimentalists, as an aspect of culture.

    Is Somerby really not aware how common the curiosity about family connection and ancestors is in our culture? It may arise because so many people who came to America were displaced people or even deported, but also because family was the foundation for social class, especially in small towns. It is not as entrenched as in Europe, but look at the audience for Bridgerton and the wide market for historical romance novels.

    So, when Biden shows an interest in family that is widely shared by Americans, he is not being nutty. He is being human and it endears him to many of his supporters (not that I think he is doing this performatively). Psychologically speaking, it may even be a subconscious way of repairing the many losses he has suffered in his immediate family over the past few decades.

    I do think that Somerby gets a bit nutty as he tries to manufacture trivial complaints against a genuinely nice person who happens to be our current president. What will Somerby call nutty next? That Biden owns a dog?