Wednesday 4 October 2017

Out of Her Tree : An American Legal Eagle

This week sees the start of the judicial year. In the UK it was celebrated with a service at Westminster Abbey attended by many judges and lawyers. This year is special because, for the first time in history, England has a woman as the most senior judge in the country, Lady Hale. The mark the start of the judicial year I’ve looked into the ancestry of the most senior out lgbt female lawyer in the USA, Eleanor D. Acheson.

Eleanor D. Acheson was an Assistant Attorney General of the USA. The Attorney General is the head of the Department of Justice and the chief lawyer of the US government. Within the department the Attorney General has a number of smaller departments which are all headed by an Assistant. Eleanor Acheson was appointed Assistant Attorney General of the Office of Policy Development by President Clinton in 1993 and served until 2001.

Both sides of Eleanor’s family contain lawyers and legislators. We’ll start with her paternal line. Her father is David Acheson (b.1921) who was a lawyer and US Attorney for the District of Columbia in the 1960s. His father was the more famous Dean Acheson (1893-1971) who was US Secretary of State under President Harry S. Truman. The legal profession is not known in the Acheson family further back. Dean Acheson was the son of an Episcopalian Bishop of Connecticut, but the bishop’s wife Alice had legal roots. Alice’s father was Louis Crandall Stanley (1855-1945) who was a lawyer with the Grand Trunk Railway System based in Detroit for 40 years.

Mrs. Alice Stanley Acheson (Dean’s wife) herself exhibited another family talent, painting. This she inherited from both parents. Her own mother Jane was another accomplished artist who exhibited at several prestigious galleries. Alice’s grandfather, John Mix Stanley (1814-1872) is one of America’s leading painters of Native American life in the “Wild West”.

There’s conflicting evidence on the ancestry of the Stanley family. There are several families John Mix Stanley could be descended from. All of them are of pioneer colonial stock. What is definite, however, is that DNA analysis of descendants of the aristocratic, royal-descended, Stanley family in the UK and descendants of the pioneering American Stanleys do not show that they share the same roots.

The situation regarding the ancestry of Eleanor’s great-grandmother, the above-mentioned Jane (née Mahon) (1863-1940) is different. Her surname clearly suggests Irish roots, and indeed that is where her ancestors came from. We can trace Jane’s mother’s family, the Le Stranges, through County Roscommon to Norfolk in England, where there is a direct bloodline to King Edward III. Also through the Le Strange family Eleanor Acheson is descended from Adam Loftus (1533-1605), Archbishop of Dublin, and ancestor she shares with Oscar Wilde.

Moving on to Eleanor’s maternal ancestry we see a lot of politicians and statesmen. Since American independence Eleanor’s ancestors have served in an almost unbroken line as Governors, Senators and Congressmen. Many of Eleanor’s cousins through this side of her family still hold political office.

From the pre-independence era one ancestor of note was Hon. David Owen (1732-1812), Chief Justice and Lt-Governor of Rhode Island. The US National Archives contains a letter written by Owen to George Washington confirming that Rhode Island has ratified the US Constitution and Washington’s reply.

Eleanor Acheson’s colonial settler ancestry connects to my own life. Eleanor’s maternal great-grandmother, Mrs. Anne Bailey James Smith (1866-1933) was descended from the Ripley family. Joshua Ripley (1658-1739) married Hannah Bradford (1662-1738), the grand-daughter of the Mayflower Pilgrim William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Colony. A large number of Mayflower passengers came from the area where I was born and raised.

There were two main groups of Puritan worshippers who became Pilgrims – the Scrooby group and the Gainsborough group. The Gainsborough group worshipped in secret at the home of a local aristocrat. This building now known as Gainsborough Old Hall and I worked there for ten years. The Old Hall is currently preparing for the big 400th anniversary of the Mayflower sailing in 1620. A leading preacher of the Gainsborough group was Rev. John Robinson. He helped to organise the Mayflower voyage but was unable to join it, and he died in Holland in 1625. John Robinson’s son Isaac is a direct ancestor of Eleanor Acheson. Gainsborough commemorates this gentleman in the town’s United Reformed Church (pictured below) which is known as the John Robinson Church, another building I know well.

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