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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 71/November 1907/Fertility and Genius

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 71‎ | November 1907



MR. ROOSEVELT'S measuring of swords with the followers of Malthus has been so much used as a butt for mere jest that it seems difficult to approach the subject in a serious mood. To the thoughtful mind, none the less, the question is one of absorbing interest. With the economic phase of the problem, we are all, of course, familiar—the least informed needs no one to tell him that the more numerous the offspring the severer the strain upon the material resources of the family. It is with the psychological side of the matter that our chief interest is bound up. Does a large progeny mean a heightening or weakening of intellectual force in the offspring? Does it imply characteristics of temperament and disposition which we need not look for in the scions of smaller families? Upon this subject we are without data save such as are afforded by the pages of biography; but if the facts we gather from the lives in our libraries are a safe guide to a conclusion upon this question our worthy executive may well congratulate himself upon his insight and philosophic wisdom.

We have examined some hundred or more biographies of noted characters—the most eminent, as we deemed, of those whose lives were accessible—and, of these, seventy-six mentioned the number of children making up the family of which the personage treated was a member. The data thus obtained we have tabulated in order, with the following result:

Horace Walpole—historic in English annals for political astuteness—was one of nineteen children.

Benjamin Franklin was one of seventeen children.

John Marshall—that greatest of American jurists—was one of fifteen children.

Peter the Great—the monarch to whom Russia is in great part indebted for what she is to-day—was one of fourteen children.

Napoleon Bonaparte—one of the most colossal figures in history—was one of thirteen children, as was also Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the English poet.

Samuel Adams, the American patriot and statesman; Sir Walter Scott, the English poet and novelist; the American writer James Fenimore Cooper, and, last, but greatest of all, Alfred Tennyson—that minstrel of a many chorded harp—belonged to families of twelve children.

Lord Nelson, the English admiral; Washington Irving, the American essayist, and James Buchanan, aforetime president of the United States, were members of families of eleven children.

The number ten, perhaps, enjoys a prouder boast than any other, for among those who can claim membership in families of that number are the mighty names of George Washington, Daniel Webster, Samuel Portland Chase (whose father, we may observe in passing, was one of nine sons), Henry George, Thomas Carlyle and Oliver Cromwell.

Of those historic characters who were members of families nine in number, illustrious examples are Thomas B. Macaulay (whose father was one of thirteen children and whose grandfather was one of fourteen children), Charles Sumner, General Sam Houston, Albert Sidney Johnston, Robert E. Lee (whose father was one of eleven children, Patrick Henry and ex-president Grover Cleveland. Mr. Cleveland's ancestry is one truly remarkable for the very numerous offspring of which his progenitors became parents for generations reaching back to colonial times—far the most remarkable of all we have discovered. Moses Cleveland, a remote ancestor of the ex-president, was the father of eleven children; his son Aaron was the father of ten; the latter's son Aaron was likewise the father of ten; this Aaron's son of the same name was also the father of ten; a son of the third Aaron, also of the same name, could claim an additional son for each of the three preceding him, for he was the proud parent of thirteen children; a son of this Aaron, named William, became the father of Richard, who in turn became the father of Grover. It is thus apparent that Mr. Roosevelt's warm interest in the ex-president springs not altogether from a high opinion of his talents or his services.

Thomas Jefferson, Thomas H. Huxley and Charles Dickens were each one of eight children, while James Madison, Henry Clay, Samuel J. Tilden, Paul Jones, Martin Luther, William Wadsworth Longfellow and William Cullen Bryant were members of families consisting of seven. As characters coming from families of six we find W. H, Seward, Lewis Cass, John Milton, Thomas DeQuincey, William E. Gladstone and Rufus Choate, while Noah Webster, William Wordsworth, Cardinal Richelieu, John Keats, James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Fulton, Gustavus Adolphus and Louis Agassiz—a goodly company, it must be owned, but only three more than those springing from families of ten—were each one of five children. The number four lays claim to the names of Charles Francis Adams, the Duke of Wellington, Henry D. Thoreau, John G. Whittier, Balzac and Christopher Columbus, but of Whittier it must be added that his father was one of eleven children, his grandfather one of nine children and his greatgrandfather one of ten children. Constituting one of a family of three was Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allen Poe, David Hume, Victor Hugo, Robert Browning and Edmund Burke. Albert Gallatin, Alexander Pope, Lord Byron, J, J. Rousseau and Aaron Burr make up the personages who can claim but a single brother or sister, though the mother of Alexander Pope, it is worthy of mention, was one of seventeen children. William M. Thackeray, Robert L. Stevenson, John Ruskin (whose father was likewise an only child) and Alexander Hamilton were single offspring.

A studied effort to swell the larger numbers by reference to biographies other than those mentioned would, it is needless to say. have added many a name to the lists, and fuller inquiry might show that of those whose names appear among the smaller numbers not a few could boast an ancestry noteworthy for numerous offspring, as in the case of Whittier, Pope and others. It has not, however, been our purpose to warp biography in the remotest degree to support or to refute a theory.

By casting together the historic names we have given and dividing the gross number of children by the total number of names we arrive at a figure a fraction less than seven—a number which we believe the statistics of population will show to exceed by not a little the number of children in the average family. It is true, of course, that statisticians, in computing the average number of children in families at large, would consider in the calculation families wholly without children, which would make the disparity less glaring—none the less the average progeny in families from which eminent personages have sprung would still be so large as to be striking.

It is apparent, upon a careful study of the figures we have given, that those who were members of large families were in general distinguished for great firmness of character—such as Napoleon, Peter the Great, Cromwell, Nelson, Washington and others. This is perhaps explained by the self-dependence one of many children reared by the same parents would acquire in the course of his youth; and the necessity of accommodating his enjoyments to those of his numerous brothers and sisters would serve a highly useful purpose in teaching him self-control, and also, perhaps, in teaching him resourcefulness. Among those, on the other hand, who were single children, or one of but two or three, no few displayed precisely the opposite qualities. However, we indulge in no theories—we call attention to the facts merely. Some reader of inquiring mind, perhaps, may be tempted to explore the subject farther.