Reaching into the Past

by Kieran Healy on April 4, 2006

David Bernstein has been “taking a few pot-shots”: at Oliver Wendell Holmes, suggesting that his reputation has declined. (This is part of David’s role as a footsoldier in the battle to rehabilitate “Lochner vs New York”: as one of the Great Supreme Court Decisions.) I have no view one way or the other about Holmes, though I’m surprised that David didn’t throw in the fact that one of Holmes’ last clerks was “Alger Hiss”: Anyway, I bring this up because I use Holmes as an example in my undergraduate social theory class, thanks to a comment made to me ages ago by “Mark Kleiman”: The goal is to convey to my students that the modern world has come into being in an astonishingly brief period of time. But they think of the 1980s as essentially equivalent to the Paleolithic, so I need a something corresponding to the inverse of Douglas Adams’ line that “You may think it’s a long way down the street to the Chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” Holmes provides it. He died in 1935, and so there are still many people alive today who knew him, or at least shook hands with him. Holmes was born in 1841, and as a boy he met “John Quincy Adams”:, who was born in 1767. So (I tell my students — maybe I should chew on a pipe when I say this, for added effect) you are just three handshakes away from a man born before the French Revolution, the American War of Independence, and arguably before the Industrial Revolution, as well. There must be many other examples. How far might we go back today with three or four handshakes?

_Update_: Post edited for elementary arithmetic.

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Bill Gardner 04.04.06 at 10:16 pm

Wonderful topic, but I’m having trouble with your handshake counting. I shake the hand (1 shake) of an acquaintance of Holmes, that acquaintance had shaken Holmes’s hand (2 shakes), and Holmes had shaken Adams’ hand (that’s 3 shakes, no?).


Billy Shears Jr 04.04.06 at 10:42 pm

Here is a story of two brothers whose father was a slave, fought in the Civil War and died 1935. The sons are still alive (or were in 2002).


Bill Gardner 04.04.06 at 10:59 pm

A college friend of mine studied piano (1 shake) with a student of Schnabel (2 shakes), who studied with Liszt (3 shakes). A fourth shake gets you Beethoven, and a fifth gets you Haydn and Mozart.


Kieran Healy 04.04.06 at 11:03 pm

bill — whoops, I fixed the error: I was thinking “there are people alive just two handshakes away from Adams” but I wrote it up incorrectly: from the point of view of you or me or one of my students, I meant three, as you say.


James 04.04.06 at 11:07 pm

My great-grandfather, born in 1901, died in 1998. His father was born before the U.S. Civil War. It has always amazed me that I (born in 1970) knew someone who knew someone who was born before the Civil War.


Noah Snyder 04.04.06 at 11:12 pm

My fencing teacher when I was in highschool (circa 1998) was born in 1905. He was friends with the personal fencing master of Teddy Roosevelt.

I used to attend a summer math program which was then run by Prof. Arnold Ross, who was also born in 1905, and left Russia as a teenager during the revolution/civil war. He was once complaining about something or other being like “Germany after the war.” A minute later he clarified “I mean, the first world war.”


joel turnipseed 04.05.06 at 12:35 am

I’m not sure how to approach this one…

On the one hand, I am one person away from, say, Ludwig Wittgenstein (I knew G.E.M. Anscombe from her visits to the University of Minnesota–and one of her sons lives in Minneapolis). I am also friends with the granddaughter of Smedley Butler, whose picture I have seen with her sitting on his lap. Since Butler’s first commander fought in the Civil War, I am just two handshakes away (hugs, really) from that episode.

For that matter, my grandfather, when he was teaching at Oakland University, used to have Jimmy Hoffa come to lecture his labor economics course–and had himself studied under Schumpeter at Harvard.

But am I really any closer to those people; those events? I don’t think so. I’m never sure how close I am to my wife (or even: myself). When I lecture as a visiting writer I’m always astonished at the contexts that are not present. A touchstone for me is the television coverage of the first Gulf War. Remember how strange CNN seemed at the time? The kids I lecture to now were three or four or five.

Which is to say: given how easily we become strangers to ourselves–and how difficult it is to know even a single other mind–is it odd that our students cannot (or, at least, do not) have some cosmic perspective? Maybe that’s all to point up the fact that no matter how much we hew to the idea of a larger world, we’re still stuck (however much we struggle) within a much smaller one.

And for all that–yes, we are living in a different world: but how different? Assuming I can shake the hand of a 90-year-old who can shake the hands of three like him, I am four handshakes away from ca. 1746. I happen to have (as a gift from my grandfather) an original copy of the “Laws and Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony” from 1759. There’s some strange shit in there (penalty for blasphemy? hot iron through the tongue)–but also a kind of continuity to our present American character.

So, I guess what I’m saying is: we’re closer to one another (in terms of ancestors) and further from one another (in terms of knowability) than we imagine. Both forms of familiarity/strangeness should be fully accounted for…


dr ngo 04.05.06 at 12:39 am

It’s not quite in the “handshake” mode, but I remember being stunned when Eric Hobsbawm, in a lecture in 1965 or thereabouts, pointed out that Alexander Kerensky was still alive. (He died in 1970.)

More obscure, but even more stunning to me, was that Emilio Aguinaldo, leader of the Philippine Revolution of 1896, was still alive when I started studying Southeast Asia in 1963. (He died the next year.)


joel turnipseed 04.05.06 at 1:00 am

Dr. Ngo (and damned if I don’t love that name!)– as you know, you and I share a commone “ancestry:” my wife’s great grandfather knew Aguinaldo (and Rizal).

It also occurs to me, w/yer mention of the P.I., that one benefit of this discussion of nearer-than-you-think ancestry is of a Burkean nature (though it can be used, w/r/t to slavery/U.S. Colonialism, against “conservatives”) & that’s just this: however much we’ve modernized (doubled, say, life-expectancy; shrunk the globe smaller than even McLuhan would have imagined)–we’re not that far away from the horrible corruptions of the past–which is to say: what you might call “progress” can be exceptionally tenuous & that previous traumas/injustices can be just barely hidden wounds.


trotstky 04.05.06 at 1:06 am

Well I just started reading Louis Menand’s “Metaphysical Club,” and after this lesson in the math of history, it seems as fresh as this morning’s paper. If I really want to delve into our origins I’m going to have to go back to Mesopotamia. What, 40 handshakes there?


M. Gordon 04.05.06 at 1:36 am

My fiancee’s grandfather, who is still alive and kicking at 98, was the dean of both Kent and John Marshall Law Schools in Chicago at different times. He was asked recently to give a lecture on John Marshall, and he started out by saying (imagine this in an ancient Yiddish/Austrian accent), “I think they asked me to speak on John Marshall because they believe that I was his contemporary.”


Andrew Edwards 04.05.06 at 2:02 am

So if 6 degrees of seperation gets from me to anyone alive today, how many degrees of seperation are required to get me to anyone who has lived since, say, 4000 BC?


Chris Bertram 04.05.06 at 2:47 am

How far might we go back today with three or four handshakes?

My former next-door neighbour (b.1902) is still alive. (count 1 handshake)

Assume she was patted on the head as a baby by at least one person aged 75+ (two handshakes to 1827)

Assume ditto (3 to 1752)

Assume ditto (4 to 1677)



Kenny Easwaran 04.05.06 at 3:58 am

It’s too bad you weren’t around one evening at a party in Australia last year when we discovered we were all within four handshakes of Stalin (primarily through Bill Clinton). People were also trying to calculate Erdos-number-style distance from Stalin. The real trick was figuring out how many links one would need in the sexual network to get to Stalin (I would guess that it’s largely connected). And also, whether that number would be even or odd.


Tim Worstall 04.05.06 at 4:16 am

All very much like Kevin Bacon: relies upon certain specific people living a long time (or being very well connected in hte original game). For a UK version the Duke of Wellington (the first one) is a good link from what, the 1840’s back to the 1760’s? 70’s?

Stalin to Bill Clinton? What? Stalin, Gromyko, Clinton, you? Who was the link between Stalin and Clinton?


luci 04.05.06 at 4:18 am

That’s seven handshakes to pre-Columbus 1450’s, ten to the Magna Carta, about 20 to the end of the Roman Empire.

And my Mom shook hands with Diego Rivera, who shook with Stalin, I’ve read. Three shakes.


Chris Bertram 04.05.06 at 4:41 am

Hey Kenny: I’m 3 shakes to Stalin 3 different ways, since I’m 2 shakes from FDR, Trotsky and Shostakovich. That also gets me 3 shakes to Churchill, Lenin, well you name it … it isn’t that hard.


DC 04.05.06 at 5:28 am

Anthony Eden’s widow is still alive, which is impressive. My grandfather was born in 1896, and I’m only 22, so I could be onto something big. Unfortunately he died before my birth so I fail the handshake test.


Bill Gardner 04.05.06 at 6:16 am

Define the 50% S-3-cline as the boundary defining a region around you within which there is at least a 50% chance that a person within the boundary is 1 to 3 shakes away from you. Moving forward in history, the area covered by the average person’s S-3-cline grows. Would the functional form of the historical acceleration of a network metric based on physical contact look any different from a network metric based on communication, market transactions, sexual contact, or most recent common (genetic) ancestor? Is the acceleration in that growth smooth (and exponential?), or do things suddenly change when the Romans / Napoleon III / Eisenhower builds roads?


ajay 04.05.06 at 6:30 am

Robert Graves starts “Goodbye To All That” with a similar discussion, linking himself, as far as I remember, with Swinburne, Sam: Johnson, Queen Anne…

The real coup, I think, comes not from saying “well, theoretically I am three handshakes from the 18th century”, because that’s true for everyone, but from listing the handshakes in question.


Rofe 04.05.06 at 7:37 am

Met George Kennan’s daughter Grace circa 1993. That might be two shakes to Stalin – certainly three – and most likely to a raft of other Soviet ‘dignitaries’.

One shake to Clinton, Chuck Yeager, and Clarence Sreit (your Google exercise for today). The resultant two- and three-shake exercise would be endless, mostly good for showing off. (Certainly hasn’t made me any smarter, or richer, though Clarence Streit would take an impressive line waaaay back.)

Bragging aside, I enjoyed the thinking behind Kieran’s orginal point.



Austro 04.05.06 at 8:17 am

My wife’s grandfather, with whom she shook hands as a child, was born in 1861 and his father was born part of Andreas Hofer’s rising in Tyrol. So from her point of view, that is two handshakes to someone who fought Napoleon.

The whole family on that side is incredible. There is an unbroken record of Births/Deaths/ Marriages and inheritance of the family Farm (two cows and three chickens, roughly) going back to 1271. I think there are some 16 generations involved, but it might be a few more. I dont have the documents to hand right now.


Marty Lederman 04.05.06 at 8:40 am

Charles L. Black, “And Our Posterity,” 102 Yale L.J. 1527 (1993):

I have always been haunted–both troubled and nourished in spirit–by certain words near the close of the Preamble to our Constitution: “and our Posterity.” These words start up the music of human time–the music of memory, and the vastly open-chorded music of hope. It is in that time–in its fleetingness and in its infinity–that our Constitution has its ordainment and establishment.
How much time are we talking about, thus far?
James Madison was born in 1751; he died in 1836. Benjamin Harrison was born in 1833, and died in 1901; he was thus a child of three when Madison died. Dwight Eisenhower, born in 1890, was eleven when Benjamin Harrison died. Eisenhower died in 1969, 218 years after the birth of Madison. I have started with Madison because of his indelible character as chief among the makers of the Constitution. The other two names were suggested by closeness of fit. Altogether, what is shown is that just three human lives, not phenomenally long, can comfortably cover 218 years. Measured backward from now, that count of years takes us back to 1773, before the Declaration of Independence, and fourteen years before the Constitution was sent out from the Philadelphia Convention.

I like to take the reach of my country’s time in more personal ways.

Long, long ago, I had a strong friendship with a black man who had been raised to the age of fifteen as a slave. He was freed when the Union troops reached Texas. He had, then, been born about 1850, the year John C. Calhoun died. In Austin there were in my early days Confederate veterans in some number; I knew a good many. I used to play with the gold watch one of them carried. Virtually all of the older black people in Austin, when I was, say, ten, had personally been slaves; for that, they needed only to be a little over sixty.

Looking the other way in time, I’ve been teaching law, these years, to people in their early twenties; I’ve gotten to know many of them rather well, in quite recent days as well as in the longer past. On any conservative estimate, a good number of these people will live at least sixty years more, some a good deal more–very senior alumni and alumnae of the Yale and Columbia Law Schools, leaders in the mid-twenty-first century.
I won’t squeeze these figures, for they can be only approximate; I hope all my students will reach 100. But the figures show that one person of my age can have talked about slavery with a man who had been a slave for fifteen years, and then can talk about the American future with young people supremely fitted to face that future for a long time. My reach in time–through voices I have heard and ears that have heard my voice–is something over 200 years, close enough to the entire span, up to now, of our nation’s life under our Constitution.

Let me take my own mother. She was born in 1885. As a young woman, she saw the first automobiles to come to Hillsboro, Texas–though I believe an old buggy remained, until about the time of my own birth, the Hillsboro family’s only means of transportation. She died in 1975, two months short of ninety– five or six years after she watched television coverage of the first landing on the moon.

Now people were born in 1816, and some of these lived to the same age my mother attained. As far as time is concerned, one of them, when about twenty, could have had a talk with the aged James Madison, who remained amenable to conversation until near the very end. This eager young interlocutor would have lived until 1905; by that time my mother, an alert young woman of twenty who had taken all the prizes in school, might have listened, eager in her turn, to such a person’s reminiscences of that meeting with Madison. Then their talk might have turned to the new-fangled automobile.

Time is little understood, hard to measure in the mind. But the obvious calculations I have played with lead me to believe that our feelings about our problems of today, and about the bearing of the past upon these problems, are too much colored by an illusory projection of a very considerable antiquity.

I want to quicken in you the feeling that our country is very new, very young. We are on a trial run. Perhaps I ought better to say, changing the metaphor without changing the word, “We are on trial.” Such a feeling has no rigorous logical bearing on the rightness of any policy. But if the past is at all to guide us, we need to form an appropriate feeling about the reach of our time as a nation. I will later suggest that even some particular problems of today may be seen differently in the light of the fact that I once had a very strong friendship with a person who had been a slave into his middle ‘teens.


arthur 04.05.06 at 8:57 am

John Hope Franklin is still occasionally lecturing today at 90 or so. I took a class from him at law school in 1990, on racial categories in the law (shook hands also). He talked about how slavery was alive to him because his own grandfather and many elderly people he had known were once slaves. Jim Crow was of course part of his own life; he had to commit a felony to complete his dissertation because he could not legally enter the state archives in Mississippi in the 1940’s (a sympathetic scholar slipped him a key and he did his work on Sundays in an empty building).


Jeremy 04.05.06 at 9:25 am

What about head pats? One aunt was patted on the head by Stalin (handshake unlikely) and another (by marriage) was patted on the head by Hitler. No link, so far, to Mao.


paul 04.05.06 at 9:33 am

My great-grandfather, born in 1833, once wrote that he had formed his essential political opinions about the position of jews in western europe before the revolutions of 1848. Those views (perhaps foreordained by the decision his staunchly assimilationist mother made to give him and his siblings local names in an otherwise painfully observant household) set up the conditions for his career, hence his son’s refusal to recognize that his native country was becoming too dangerous for him to survive, hence his son’s life as a successful immigrant who believed in keeping a low profile. And so on. So two handshakes get me back to the 1830s, another to the late 18th century. It was rather sobering to read the various memoirs as a college student and realize how much of my outlook had been shaped by decisions more than a hundred years before I was born.


Dantheman 04.05.06 at 11:07 am

When I visited John Tyler’s (who was born in the 1780’s) house about a decade ago, I was surprised to find that his grandson lived there. Tyler’s wife died shortly before he was elected President, and he re-married and had multiple additional children by his second wife. The youngest child (born roughly 1860, when Tyler was 79, IIRC) performed the same feat, so his youngest child was born in the 1930’s, and was living in the house. We asked the tour guide if the current resident was planning on repeating history, and was told no (I got the impression it is a common question).


Sebastian Holsclaw 04.05.06 at 12:09 pm

My mother as a little girl was a piano student under the last student of Brahms (I think. I heard the story in my teens).

Major digression, my mother trained for years to be concert pianist. She used to play at night after she put us to bed–I think it was a form of therapy for her. In any case for almost a decade I would hear other people’s mothers say that they could play the piano and whenever I heard them I thought they were awful. I couldn’t understand why they would talk about playing the piano when they were so bad. They had miscues on classic pieces of moderate complexity while my mother could whip about a new arrangement of something she was doing with the church choir on the fly. It wasn’t until I was 16 years old that I finally realized that these other people weren’t so awful, my mother was just very good. As a child it was hard for me to realize that my mother excelled at something–she was the baseline for normal.


eweininger 04.05.06 at 12:53 pm

Yourcenar plays with this idea a bit in an essay on her novel about Hadrian (something along the lines of “only thirty generations separate us from Hadrian.” Etc.)

That said, the novel wears the era of its composition so heavily on its sleeve, that one might be led to wonder about the significance of the idea….


Roger Bigod 04.05.06 at 1:15 pm

My DAR grandmother’s father was in a Virginia cavalry unit at Gettysburg, and I have a autobiographical essay in which he remembers spending years of his childhood with his grandmother, Charlotte Ashmore Keith (does that sound Southun enough?). She was born in 1782 and may have shaken hands with her cousin, John Marshall. If she didn’t, her father did, since he and Marshall were at Valley Forge together. So four or five handhakes to John Marshall, five or six to Gouverneur Morris. I feel more comfortable bragging about handshakes than ancestry. After all, social contact is a matter of record, while paternity is a matter of conjecture.

More notably, depending on one’s temperament, my German teacher in college remembered coming down to breakfast in 1907 to see a newspaper reporting a military skirmish between Russia and Austria. In the 1950’s, he had a monthly correspondence with Martin Buber. After leaving Germany, his family stayed for a while with the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire in London. I wish I’d asked him if he had met Wittgenstein. Two handshakes to Ludwig would be cool.


Jeremy 04.05.06 at 1:33 pm

The strongest sensation of historical immediacy I ever experienced came in a viewing of early films by the Lumière brothers, circa 1895 — footage of people leaving a factory, disembarking from a train, crossing a Paris street. Real people at a precise moment in history, a moving snapshot for posterity. It’s one thing to read fictional descriptions by Dickens or James about how people lived in that era, quite another to view documentary evidence of how they actually looked as they went about their lives at a particular moment in time — with no speculation involving handshakes. Early criticism of photography, and, later, documentary cinema, focussed on the damage they would inflict on art and imagination, but, in fact, these media turned out to be remarkably inspirational to artists, not to mention invaluable to historians. Having no live record of Napoleon, we can only wonder about his presence or charisma. No one needs wonder about Hitler, Churchill or Roosevelt.


maidhc 04.05.06 at 5:11 pm

My mother shook hands with Eleanor Roosevelt. That puts me 4 handshakes from Stalin. She also shook hands with Lady Mountbatten, so I am 4 handshakes from Tsar Nicholas II.

I shook hands with Eubie Blake, so I am 2 handshakes from James Reese Europe, Josephine Baker, Bert Williams and Scott Joplin. I imagine that the Josephine Baker connection would put me 3 handshakes away from all kinds of interesting people.

Interesting topic. We talk about how much things have changed in our generation, but compare that to my grandfather (born 1886) or his grandfather (born 1815) and I wonder who really saw the most change.

Kipling talks about how farm labour in Britain was much the same as it was at the time of the Norman Conquest, but that way of life was gone soon after the First World War.


Dale 04.05.06 at 9:48 pm

My maternal grandparents homesteaded on what had been Sioux reservataion in 1910. They socialized some with local Sioux people. I never heard them say, but I always imagined that some of those folks may have fought at the Little Bighorn. But aside from that- to have known Native Americans who once knew the freedom of the Great Plains…
then lost a world.


Steve T. 04.06.06 at 12:26 am

My mother-in-law’s father walked across Wales to get to college in the late 1890s, accompanied by his grandmother, who was born in 1817. My mother-in-law recently visited a childhood friend, whose parents were close college friends with her parents, more than a century ago.

The piano my daughter and I still play frequently was bought in 1889 by my gg-grandparents, who were born in the early 1850s, and was probably played (and certainly heard) by members of the previous generation, born in 1819.


Dr Paisley 04.06.06 at 12:48 am

During the fall of 1960, my parents dressed my sister and I up in cowboy outfits with signs (“Me and my horse are for Nixon of course!” read mine [I was almost four, didn’t have any choice]) and took us to an appearance Nixon made in Kansas City. As the motorcade passed by, Pat saw us and pointed us out to the Trickinator. We hung around and got to meet him, and I have a signed “Office of the Vice President” business card commemorating the handshake I got from him. Which should be 3 from Stalin (via Khruschev), thence to Lenin, Trotsky and beyond. Perhaps I should go wash up; I feel a Lady Macbeth moment coming on.


rollo 04.06.06 at 1:08 am

Marty Lederman –
In a thread full of moving and often fascinating reminiscence, your piece was inspiring.


Richard J 04.06.06 at 6:37 am

I’ve got a vague memory of a Simon Jenkins column which knocks most of these into a cocked hat. Ah, here we go:-

“A man of my acquaintance was addressed, when a child, on the subject of Oliver Cromwell. The speaker was a lady of 91. She told him sternly never to speak ill of the great man. She went on: “My husband’s first wife’s first husband knew Oliver Cromwell – and liked him well.” It was an admonition my friend has not forgotten.

At first hearing, the story is unbelievable. This was not a great-grandfather who knew a great-grandson. Here at the dawn of the new century is someone able to recall a single matrimonial generation linked directly with the mid-17th century*…

*The remark was made in 1923 by a lady born in 1832. At the age of 16 she had married an 80-year-old man named Henry. Sixty-four years earlier, in 1784, the young Henry had, for reasons obscure, married an 82-year-old woman. Her first marriage, in 1720, was to an 80-year-old who had served Cromwell before his death in 1658. “


dilbert dogbert 04.06.06 at 6:33 pm

I shook hands with Bill Clinton. Yikes!!!
Wonderfull comments! Thanks


dragonet 04.06.06 at 10:33 pm

Doc paisley always cracks me up. But on topic….

My great grandfather, who papa said got to at least meet me as an infant, jumped ship in NY at the turn of the century and departed himself to the farthest reaches of the U.S. because at the time one could be hung for such an offense.

He was a German merchant marine, joined that because the other alternative was to be impressed into the Prussian army. And he ended up in Afton, OK.Where my proud papa introduced me to him when I was waaaay too little to know.

Because he was a farmer or some other such, I doubt we were any kind of ‘steps’ from anyone famous, aside from being oppressed by them. Then again we live with someone who is 2 steps from Kevin Bacon. ….

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