Sometimes it’s astonishing just how young everything is. We can throw around numbers that sound big – 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, 12,000 years since the agricultural revolution – but a different way of looking at things can make it all seem so much closer.
There’s an oft-repeated story that highlights how young the United States is. John Tyler, an accidental president, who was born in 1790, not long after the adoption of our Constitution, still has living grandkids.
Now, I first read this on the internet so, of course, I had to be skeptical, but just a quick search and you can find an interview USA Today did with one of the grandsons in 2017. There, he still works the family estate named Sherwood Forest in Virginia that Tyler purchased from his one-time boss, President William Henry Harrison.
Tyler succeeded Harrison after the latter died about a month into his term as president. Both were from storied Virginia families with long roots, and Sherwood Forest was, at the time, a functioning plantation with a workforce of slaves.
Now, this is something of a fluke. Technically our country is really just three generations old, but that is only because Tyler had kids (very) late in life, and then one of those kids also had kids (very) late in life. Even for presidents it is unusual. Abraham Lincoln’s line ended in the mid-1980s when his last great-grandson, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, died.
There is some debate about other possible descendants floating around out there, but Beckwith was the last undisputed one.
So in just three lifetimes you can go back to the beginning of the United States. That’s an exceptional circumstance, but most people will have something similar. My great-grandmother, whom I met and knew well into my teenage years, grew up in Italy.
During the outbreak of World War I, she had to flee the Austro-Hungarian Army as it marched across the border, and family lore has it that her family was on the last train out of town before the hordes marched in.
They seem so far away though. Just a few generations ago the world was one with kings and princes and empires controlling the world. A man alive today had a grandfather who could have possibly met George Washington and certainly had met other founding fathers.
If the past isn’t all that long ago, the future isn’t that far off either. When people a few generations from now look at our quaint and antiquated ways – of how music was better when Britney Spears was at the top of the charts and classic Marvel movies were new and fresh and exciting – they’ll be amazed at how short it was.
If you or your parents or grandparents were watching television in the 1950s, you could see interviews with veterans of the Civil War. The last American to serve in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting fascists in the Spanish Civil War died as recently as 2016.
Things change fast and time moves faster.
It’s not a new concept. It wasn’t new when Robert Herrick wrote, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” It probably wasn’t new when Virgil and Cicero wrote about it more than 2,000 years ago – just about 85 generations ago, if you’re keeping track.
But if the past isn’t that long ago, and the future isn’t that far off, then maybe we should plan on making decisions with the future in mind.
On a daily basis, we deal with the consequences of decisions made by people long dead. From the taxes taken from your paycheck to the paths of roads to the architecture of that building on the corner.
In elementary school, I had a teacher who told us about Native American tribes always making decisions based on how they would affect the next seven generations. I’ve never been able to find any truth to this, and I suppose it’s as true as George Washington and his cherry tree or the silver dollar over the Potomac.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea, though.
The future is coming fast and, no matter our station, it will live in our shadow. Maybe it would be good to leave it a little better than we found it.