[World, February 4, 1995]
The handwritten letter was three pages long and dated “Savannah 24th May 1848.” It was signed by my husband’s great-great-great grandmother, Antoinette Girard.
It began dramatically. “Prompted by the desire to leave to my children some record of their ancestors, I try to write down as much as I can remember, but must request that no use whatever should be made of this paper as long as their father lives. He bound himself by a solemn promise never to reveal it.”
In 1832, Antony and Antionette Girard had emigrated from Europe, leaving behind countal crowns and coats of arms. Antony was determined that, in the land of equal opportunity, his noble background would never be revealed.
Antoinette disagreed. “I feel on the contrary as if my children ought to know from whom they descend. Noble and high blood flows in them, and they should never be tempted to debase it.” She goes on to trace her family back to 1025, and adds a startling note: “My grandfather had but one son by Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. He loved the Empress for herself, took his child and retired to his estates.” This lineage, though illegitimate, entitled Antoinette’s dad to an alternate coat of arms: “He could have taken the two headed black eagle of Russia, with the bar sinister, but he never would.”
The story of the Girards’ emigration has been lost, except the oft-told fragment, “they had to flee at night in their ball gowns.” They left in haste; Antoinette cut her father’s portrait from its frame and rolled it for travel, so that reframed now above my mantel the paint stands out in alligator squares.
It’s unknown why Antony Girard, Count de Mellecy, was so determined to cast away the vestiges of aristocracy. Many of our ancestors, rich and poor, came seeking that freedom. In “the old country,” chains of blood bound people to land or labor, throne or lord. In America, everyone had an equal chance to start on level ground, to earn whatever hard work and talent could bring. Bloodlines would hold no more coercive power.
But recently evidence for the power of blood has surfaced again. In The Bell Curve, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray suggest that the ability to succeed in a meritocracy is itself inherited. This perception is based on two nearly-indisputable theses: the modern information-based economy rewards brain, not brawn; and intelligence is, to some extent, inherited. Thus a new two-class system inevitably emerges, in which those with the smartest genes continually rise to the top.
A hundred years ago only the wealthy went to college; poor communities were brightened by gifted individuals blooming where they were planted. The present educational system, however, identifies talented poor kids and scoops them into college scholarships. They don’t go home again. The higher-earning, higher-IQ class — of every race — interbreeds in the suburbs, while the the poor — of every race— are impoverished by the continual loss of their brightest. Ironically, you stand a better chance of working your way to the top if you have the right (bright) ancestors.
As nettling as this riddle may be, it is useful to step back and ask whether intelligence, and the wealth and success it can bring, really makes for a better life, or better people. Virtues like fidelity, courage and honesty are not confined to any class. Nobility is not just for nobles. Common decency is not just for commoners.
Whether status is won by hard work or by inheritance, it is still only a paper glory. We will all one day be sorted by a rigorous two-class division, but the classes are sheep and goats. We will not be saved by our own efforts in that day: the level ground is not where you begin climbing by your own hard work, but at the foot of the cross. We will not be saved by kingly blood in that day; however august our lineage, we all trace our ultimate descent from a common pair of ancestors. That ancient couple is known for neither wit nor wealth, but for making a colossal mistake, one which destined all humankind for despair.
“Blood will tell,” and their rebellious blood tells in every new generation. The debt of that bad blood is covered only by another blood, flowing down a wooden cross. In all of history, those are the only blood lines that matter. Our ancestors may have worn crowns of gold, but in all of history, the only crown that matters was a crown of thorns.
Still Antoinette Girard, lonely and bewildered in a new land, clung to her paper crown. “I am the last scion living of two noble and ancient families; my children will bear neither their arms nor their name. Yet I hope and desire they will mix with no low born. Perhaps it is wrong in me, if they can be happy, but if they turn back and trace their descent they will see that it is not a false but a noble pride which makes me desire it!”
“I sign myself, for the first and last time in America, Antoinette Girard, Countesse de Mellecy.”