Commentary Magazine


Burying the Hatchet

Having grown up in the depression, I share certain poignant experiences with many who were young in that American decade. Not the least of these was the troubling idea that would bother many adolescents of a literary frame of mind, as I was then: what would I do with myself, if even those who really knew how to work could not get jobs? Even now, when I have university tenure, I recall the haunting anxieties of this phase of life. The problem was: Was I already obsolete? Was I doomed to poverty? Would I be one of the great unemployed? How was I to pay my way through life?

During such gloomy reveries, a natural option was to seize eagerly upon fantasies reasonably credible to juveniles, either from tales told by fireplaces or from other transmitted family lore. Many of mine concerned family grievances over lost litigations. In them, vast sums of money and real estate otherwise due some ancestor of mine had been unlawfully transferred to others, by sheer force or through biased judicial proceedings. Others pertained to violent misdeeds, the outcome of which severely diminished the gigantic fortunes which otherwise would have been handed down, through the generations, to me.

One of these involved an ancestor of mine, a large plantation owner in Barbados, who fled for his life when his slaves revolted, pillaging the estate. My impressionable mind boggled at the prospects of this vast, lost latifundia, which adequate 17th-century law enforcement otherwise would have preserved intact, for transmission to me through probable bequests.

By genetic coincidence, however, I inherited my most grave prenatal injustice from both my father’s and mother’s side of the family. Both were descendants of a woman named Anneke Jans. She was a Dutch farm wife who, at her death late in the 1600’s, owned most of the gentle pasture land in Manhattan on which now stand Wall Street, Trinity Church, and much more. One of her sons, who had been out of town at the time (as I heard it), had been done out of his share in the estate by very shady means. A chain of futile litigations was commenced by him. It continued for many generations, into the 19th century, fueled greatly by the tendency of this real estate to increase in value and of litigious heirs to increase in number. The law was as unkind to me in this instance as in a similar one which I now recount. But it was doubly so. To lose Wall Street? On both sides of the family?

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The next historical injustice, more poignant than all the others because of its relative closeness in time, was the swindle perpetrated upon the estate of Alexander T. Stewart, founder of America’s first department store, and a cousin, of sorts, to my great-grandfather. This one was beautiful and simple, as all great swindles are. In Stewart’s declining days, his will was (it is alleged) rewritten to give the bulk of it to his lawyer, a man named Hilton. The redraft in fact was done by Hilton himself. Then Stewart conveniently died. A comfortable legacy was left to his widow.

The ensuing litigation, needless to say, was joined by a sizable number of Stewart’s relatives. In the second unsuccessful trial, for instance, a boatload of them came to New York from Belfast to join the act. If, when Queen Mary died, the name of Calais was found written on her heart, more names than one would have been found on my great-grandfather’s: Garden City, Country Life Press, Stewart Manor, and Floral Park. Stewart had owned them all! Three times the case was tried; three times it failed. The richest suburban real estate on Long Island—stolen from my family!

During the depression, it was my sorry lot to live in proximity to one legacy of this evil deed. Two blocks from our unpainted house was a street (zoned upper income) named after that very lawyer: Hilton Avenue.

Most of us are saved from the knowledge of the evils perpetrated on our forebears by a dearth of known particulars such as these. Much gnashing of teeth is thereby spared. But also, much hope! How I dreamed of one day rectifying these historical misdeeds! I even thought of becoming a lawyer.

The seed of Anneke Jans by now is widely sown to far corners of America. But even today, I would gladly settle for, say, 10 per cent of the New York Stock Exchange building, or a parcel of the Chase Manhattan.

How disillusioning it was to confront the dampening effects of the statute of limitations on such historical fantasies. It certainly was sobering finally to learn about that statute. One fortunate consequence of this discovery to me personally was that I decided to do other things than practice law.

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Now, however, for those of us who have no primary knowledge of historical injustice, no old folk tales to inspire our personal greed, there is hope. The statute of limitations seemingly operates against living individuals and families, but perhaps not against larger biological collectivities which have historians and lawyers at their disposal to forage for acts against them. Lawyers for Indian tribes, for instance, can rummage through ancient archives for proof that they were done in. Stewart Manor will never be mine, but if Marlon Brando gets his way, South Dakota will revert to the Shawnees, or some such tribe, and historic rectification will be accomplished.

This is known as getting even collectively, when you can’t get even individually at such a distance in time.

One of my juvenile fantasies was some day to come upon a descendant of that lawyer, Hilton. I often contrived to imagine what he looked like. He would resemble one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dream people, different from you and me, because of what Hemingway said—he had the money. What would I do in this encounter? I would produce from my wallet a faded clipping, out of an old album which my grandmother had made of this tragic affair. It would show (for it was a pencil sketch made at the trial) all the victims of his. ancestor’s villainies. He would look at it and wince guiltily. I would make him do more than wince. I in my dowdy, shabby outfit (contrasting with his blazer and linen yachting slacks) would carefully replace it in my pocket, saying quietly, “Remember who you are.” He would not soon forget.

Of course, the thought of the consequences of my successful litigation occasionally crossed my mind. What would I do with Garden City? That was a poser. It was filled with houses in turn filled with people. Probably none had ever heard of Stewart or Hilton, much less my great-grandfather. What would I do with them?

What, in fact, will Marlon Brando’s lawyers and professional Indians do with the people now trespassing in Pierre, Rapid City, and Yankton who moved out there after Custer had done his thing? All those Swedes and Germans who were mostly European peasants at the time of Wounded Knee? And what about the Catholic friars?

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When one reflects on collective historical injustices done to ancestors by other collectivities, it is a comfort for America’s domestic tranquility that most of them were perpetrated somewhere else in the world. In fact, many of our ancestors moved to this country to escape them. (The recent misdeeds of the Castro regime account for some 600,000 new ones.) Most of us now living can with little difficulty conjure up some collective bestiality, to our kind of people, done by their kind of people: religious and political persecutions, pogroms, enslavement. A good thing it is for Americans of Irish descent that Belfast is in Ulster and is not a Boston suburb; to us Cromwell is nothing; to Ulsterites he is fundamental. “That was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead,” we have to say, even if the wench in question was one of ours.

The Indian movement, however, has one up on the rest of us, since the Indians’ collective injustices were geographically done to them on home ground, if by persons now long deceased.

It is one of the peculiarities of “historical collective injustices” that the supposed rectification of them, as and when it occurs, penalizes living persons for acts committed by persons not living. The incidence usually is even upon persons whose ancestors were in no way involved.

This holds true even with respect to “historical collective injustices” which once occurred in the United States itself; the majority of living Americans today do not descend from persons living in America in the 1860’s.

But these are incidental ruminations, inspired by Son of Wounded Knee, by Marlon Brando’s Indian cult, and assorted other causes. That a Catholic religious order now in happy guilt should pay penance for historical misdeeds of official 19th-century renegades like Custer and his boys, mostly good Protestants, says something about the diminished rigor of theological training these days as well as a more widespread and general decline in our secular modes of reasoning.

The point of my tale, however, is less directed to these current curiosities than to a fundamental irony about the effect of remote historical calamities on our most private, personal fortunes.

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The lives of all of us depend on past injustices and misfortunes. I was thinking about my Barbados ancestor recently (the one whose plantation was set ablaze). After the event, so the story goes, he fled, penniless, to Boston. There, he met the woman who became his wife. They had children, who bore children, who bore children, and so on. The simple point I have thought about, more recently, is that I would not be alive had the event not occurred. Probably he would have married a local. I have a vital interest in his catastrophe. No slave revolt, no me.

One way or another, that applies to all of us, the living. If the current Hilton cares to make up with me I am in a conciliatory mood. Probably, he couldn’t care less.

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About the Author




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