It's an arresting experience to walk into Peterskirk, Leiden, Holland, and see there the signature of Thomas Francis Blossom, 12th generation ancestor of U.S. President Barack Obama. It stops one in his tracks.
Peterskirk is the church where Pastor John Robinson preached his sermon telling the Separating Puritans who had fled from England to Leiden to escape persecution for their exclusivist religious beliefs that they would never find peace in Holland, and that they should migrate to America. To stand beneath the imposing, elevated pulpit in that architecturally spare but elegant church and imagine the English Pilgrims listening to the fateful message that would help define the American experience is to feel the full weight of history.
To find in the church documentation of President Obama's link to the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock overwhelms and contorts ones perspective; it puts the "birther" nonsense into a fully different context. Barack Obama joins Franklin Roosevelt, George H.W. and George W. Bush, as well as John and John Quincy Adams, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and James Garfield as American presidents who were direct descendants of the Mayflower settlers.
Actually, Thomas Blossom's trek to Plymouth was slightly convoluted. Blossom went with other Separating Puritans from England to Leiden in 1609. In 1620 he responded to Robinson's call, and joined the emigrating group, who went back to England before departing for America. When the Mayflower left England she was accompanied by a sister ship, Speedwell. Twice, having embarked, Speedwell developed leaks, and both ships returned to port.
At that point, Mayflower set out alone, carrying some of the Speedwell Pilgrims; but not Thomas Blossom. He stayed behind and went back to Leiden. But in 1629 he and his family finally sailed for Salem on another ship named Mayflower. Once there, the Blossoms moved to Plymouth, where Thomas became a deacon in the church. He died in 1633.
President Obama is, of course, half Kenyan, and in his ancestry lies a metaphor for the promise of America which was thought in the beginning to be an idea, not an ethnicity.
Answering the question, "What, then, is the American, this new man?" in 1782 the French-American writer Hector St. John de Crevecoeur answered famously, he is one who "leaves behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners." In America, "individuals of all races are melded into a new race of man, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims."
But the melding and the idea came hard up against the notion of eugenics in the late 19th century, the idea that race is a scientific category, and that manipulation of human populations aimed at improving their genetic composition is legitimate. Eugenics became very popular in the early 20th century, its theorists and practitioners accepting the conviction that certain races were superior in attributes to others, by which they understood that the inferiors could never develop the capability to be equal to their superiors.
Americans were leaders in developing eugenics; it fit the racial history of the country that originated with slavery and persisted after the Civil War. Theodore Roosevelt and Alexander Graham Bell, with many others, were early proponents of the eugenics movement, which among other things helped state legislatures develop marriage laws that stayed on the books in some states until the 1960s. In Europe eugenics fueled anti-Semitism, and in Nazi Germany the Holocaust. In America the pioneer sociologist Lester Frank Ward was one of many early critics. But eugenics left a nearly indelible mark on American culture, only partially washed away by the civil rights revolution.
What is so elevating about Peterskirk is that it re-establishes in the mind the potential of a non-racialized America, the wholly refreshing possibility that we can, after all, pursue the melding that Crevecoeur idealized, a people molded by the ideas both Jefferson and Lincoln linked: personal liberty and fundamental equality.
If George W. Bush and Barack Obama share ancestors who arrived here with the Puritan Migration of the 1620s, perhaps, drawing on that commonality, we can invent an America free of the poison of race hatred, and learn to transcend the pseudo-exclusions that have so long divided us.
Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.