Often someone will complain cluelessly that our present times are the worst. But in fact, even in today’s troubled world, we are living in the best times, the most privileged and blessed times. How many are aware and grateful? That millions and millions of young children who once routinely died now unexceptionally survive and thrive around the world should be cause for endless thanks, right?
Last weekend on a Christmas candle light tour I visited the historic Carlyle House in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, a grand colonial mansion built in the 1750s by a Scottish merchant who was one of Alexandria’s founding fathers. A friend to George Washington, he was one of the wealthiest, perhaps the richest man in town. He certainly had the grandest house. But his vast wealth was no protection from tragedy.
Carlyle outlived 9 of his 11 children. One of the two remaining children, the last surviving son, died one year after his father, at age 15 fighting in the American Revolution. Only one of the eleven lived into full adulthood. Today society would rightly be suspicious of any parent losing so many children. Surely there was foul play! But over two centuries ago, losing nine or ten children was certainly very grievous but not very unusual. Wealth offered no protection from disease and death, and child mortality among slaves and the very poor was likely not much different than for the very privileged. Doctors were almost useless against most serious illness. Germ theory was more than a century from meaningful discovery.
Martha Washington, who would have visited Carlyle House many times, outlived all four of her children, plus her first husband, who died when she was 26. Two of her children died as toddlers. One died as an epileptic teenager with her step father George Washington desperately praying over her. The fourth died of illness in his mid twenties. George and Martha adopted two of four surviving grandchildren.
A century later, child mortality was little improved. Mary Lincoln outlived three of her four children. She was driven to near madness as First Lady by the death of her second little son, possibly sickened by dirty Potomac water piped to the White House, and who was ailing during her first big social extravaganza in the newly redecorated White House, an evening that otherwise would have been her greatest triumph. Her husband later reputedly threatened her, in reaction to her hysterics, with a mental hospital. As grieving president he more quietly frequented his second son’s grave, perhaps even opening the crypt to view the corpse. Lincoln may have got religion in his deep grief. His favorite poem, often recited, was about death. Nearly everybody lived with routine death, including by small children.
Through the 19th century nearly every family lost a child, often many more. Looking at my own family history, several of my great grandparents lost young siblings in the late 19th century. But none of my grandparents did in the early 20th century, as medical knowledge had increased.