Hereditary Transmission of Qualities and Merit as Family Patrimony

March 15, 2012

As we have seen, the hereditary transmission of status through the family has been studied and verified by many sociologists. In addition to status, qualities can also be transmitted by the family. Each generation transmits to the next its moral and cultural values. This transmission of qualities within a family throughout generations is affirmed by Burt, who acknowledges that this is a normal occurrence in American society.

Robert Treat Paine signer of the Declaration of Independence. His descendant, Lyman Paine married Ruth Forbes of the Forbes family and the great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“This succession of merit [from one generation to another]…is hereditary. It most certainly keeps families going, it most certainly establishes family prestige, it most certainly adds to American society a strong past and present tinge of birth, gentility, tradition, and what have you; all those things which are the appendages if not the crude essence of aristocracy.”1

In turn, Walter Muir Whitehill observes that

“many families of high social status have maintained an extraordinary level of national distinction, generation after generation. This is the American version of aristocracy, an aristocracy of accomplishment, achieved rapidly by conspicuous and intelligent effort, but imposing upon succeeding generations a responsibility quite as binding, and sometimes as hindering, as the traditional aristocracies of Europe.”2

In one of his allocutions to the Roman Patriciate and Nobility, Pius XII refers specifically to the transmission of moral and spiritual qualities of a family from one generation to another.3

Dorothy Quincy Hancock Scott, daughter of Justice Edmund Quincy, the wife of John Hancock and the cousin of Abigail Smith Adams, the wife of John Adams.

The hereditary transmission of merit, while intimately related to the transmission of status described in the previous section, has received little attention, and may appear strange to many. But it has been studied by sociologists like Bernard Faber, who admits the hereditary transmission of something beyond mere material patrimony.

“Possibly the most valuable property of a kin group aside from wealth is its position among other kinship units in terms of honor and status, a position defined by the content of the symbolic estate [in other terms a moral patrimony] that the kinship group possesses. This symbolic estate includes the achievements and honors of those individuals, both living and dead, related to the kinship group. More generally, families may become known by a great ancestor (real or fictitious), wealth, or personal achievements. One role of kinship groups in social differentiation is to perpetuate and enhance these symbolic estates, which become an important part of the family culture.”4

From the perspective of a democratic mentality, which recognizes reward only for personal merit, the hereditary transmission of merit is one of the great injustices of an aristocratic regime, for it enables a privileged few to be born into an advantageous position, that is, a status inherited from their ancestors.

Henry Lee III was the grandson of Henry Lee I, a great-grandson of Richard Bland, and a great-great-grandson of William Randolph. He was also a descendant of Theodorick Bland of Westover and Governor Richard Bennett.

Nevertheless, if many deny that merit can be inherited, many find it reasonable that gratitude can be manifested not only directly to the benefactor, but also to his descendants.

In this way, when someone receives a great favor from another person, the former can repay the latter in the form of a reward to his son. For example, if a man in a difficult situation receives help from another person, once he has overcome the trial it would make perfect sense for him to express his gratitude to the benefactor’s son.

This derives from the principle that all of the father’s patrimony is hereditary, including his moral patrimony, that is, the favors and benefits the father bestowed upon other people or the State.

In his son, the father loves a projection of his own personality. He considers a favor done to his son as a favor to himself. To show the son gratitude owed to the father is to recognize in the former an extension of the latter, a hereditary link between the two.

President John Adams. Through his mother, John Adams was a second cousin of Massachusetts governor Increase Sumner; their maternal grandmothers were sisters. Both were also related to President Coolidge.

This may apply as well between an individual and the State, where the State is the beneficiary of a meritorious action and the individual the benefactor.

For example, a man who renders notable services to a king becomes the creditor of the king’s affection, a purely moral good, which cannot be appraised in material terms. As the creditor of the king’s affection, he becomes the creditor of his rewards. Should the king be unable to repay this moral debt to his benefactor, he can repay it to his sons.

An interesting example of this occurred in American colonial history. William Penn received the colony of Pennsylvania from King Charles II in gratitude for the services that his father had rendered the Stuarts. Historian George Tindall describes the transaction.

“Upon his father’s death he [Penn] inherited the friendship of the Stuarts and a substantial estate, including a claim of ₤16,000 his father had lent the crown…. He got from Charles II in 1681 proprietary rights to a tract extending westward from the Delaware for five degrees of longitude and from the ‘beginning’ of the forty-third degree on the north to the ‘beginning’ of the fortieth degree on the south. The land was named, at the king’s insistence, for Penn’s father: Pennsylvania.”5

A great man who has rendered illustrious services to his country, by his courage, zeal, dedication, and competence in the military, political, diplomatic, or cultural spheres, may have the gratitude that is his due manifested to his descendants as well. This gratitude should be acknowledged not simply by the State, but also by the people.

Sir Winston Churchill, with his son Randolf and grandson in ceremonial robes. Churchill was related to John Howland, one of the passengers on the Mayflower and his descendants have been associated with the Boston Brahmins. From his marriage to Elizabeth Tilley they founded one of the three largest progenies of Mayflower descendants.

For example, it is undeniable that the simple fact of being a descendant of George Washington would make one an object of special consideration and elevate one’s status in American society. This increased social standing does not derive from personal merits but from the merits of the ancestor and from the nation’s gratitude for his service.

The legitimacy of this kind of hereditary debt is sanctioned by God Himself in various passages of Scripture. On several occasions He withheld punishments or granted favors to His Chosen People because of the merits of their great ancestors, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David.6

Popes and saints have likewise affirmed the transmission of merits and qualities of ancestors to their descendants. In his allocutions to the Roman Patriciate and Nobility, and in those to the Pontifical Noble Guard, Pius XII refers to it.7


Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), Appendix I, pp. 177-181.


1 Nathaniel Burt, First Families: The Making of American Aristocracy (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1970), p. 431.

2 Walter Muir Whitehill, “The New Aristocracies of Success,” in American Civilization, Daniel J. Boorstin, ed. (London: Thames & Hudson, 1972), p. 165.

3 See Part I, Chapter V, 2.

4 Bernard Farber, Kinship and Class (New York: Basic Books, 1971), p. 8.

5 George Tindall, America: A Narrative History (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1984), Vol. I, p. 78.

6 Referring to the patriarchs of old, the book of Ecclesiastes declares: “Let us now praise men of renown, and our fathers in their generation…. And their children for their sakes remain forever: their seed and their glory shall not be forsaken” (Eccl. 44: 1, 13). And further on: “Abraham was the great father of a multitude of nations, and there was not found the like to him in glory, who kept the law of the most High, and was in covenant with him. In his flesh he established the covenant, and in temptation he was found faithful. Therefore by an oath he gave him glory in his posterity…. And he did in like manner with Isaac for the sake of Abraham his father” (Eccl. 44:20-22, 24).

7 “You too, remembering your ancestors, relive their lives in a way; and your ancestors live again in your names and in the titles they left you through their merits and their greatness…. Social inequalities, even those related to birth, are inevitable…. No art has ever been able to work things so that the son of a great chief, the son of a great leader of the masses, should remain in the same condition as an obscure citizen lost among the common people” (RPN 1942). “In you We hail the descendants and representatives of families long in the service of the Holy See and the Vicar of Christ, who remained faithful to the Roman Pontificate even when it was exposed to outrages and persecutions…. Such a testimonial of grateful remembrance—which must also serve as an impetus for the future—must also command respect and understanding” (RPN 1950). “You placed the nobility of blood at the service of the Church and in the guard of the Successor of Saint Peter; nobility of the splendid works of your elders, which ennobles you as well, if day by day, each of you takes care to augment in himself the nobility of virtue” (PNG 1941).

In like manner, saints such as Charles Borromeo have made it very clear that the inheritance of the merit and qualities of ancestors is legitimate: “For, if that person is to be considered noble who traces his origins from illustrious ancestors, how great is the nobility of Mary, whose filiation traces from Kings, Patriarchs, Prophets, and Priests of the Tribe of Judah, to the seed of Abraham, and to the royal stirp of David?… In first place, the splendor of the blood and the virtue and famous deeds of the ancestors have a marvelous effect in disposing the noble, virile man to follow in the footsteps of those from whom he descended” (Sermon on the birthday of Our Lady, September 8, 1584). The entire text of this sermon, so rich in other matters, may be read in Documents IV of this work.


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