The The American Family in the Colonial Period American Family in the Colonial Period

The The American Family in the Colonial Period American Family in the Colonial Period

by Arthur W. Calhoun

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First published in the early 20th century, this book contributed significantly to an understanding of the forces at work in the evolution of family institutions in the United States. The first of a three-volume series, the text describes the American family as a product primarily of European folkways, economic transition to modern capitalism, and its distinctive


First published in the early 20th century, this book contributed significantly to an understanding of the forces at work in the evolution of family institutions in the United States. The first of a three-volume series, the text describes the American family as a product primarily of European folkways, economic transition to modern capitalism, and its distinctive environment — a virgin continent. Exhaustive in its use of primary and secondary sources, The American Family in the Colonial Period will be invaluable to students of early American history and of interest to all who enjoy reading about America's past and its early settlers.

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The American Family in the Colonial Period

By Arthur W. Calhoun

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2014 Arthur W. Calhoun
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14330-9



American family institutions are a resultant of three main factors: the complex of medieval tradition evolved through the centuries on the basis of ancient civilization plus the usages of its barbarian successor; the economic transition from medieval landlordism to modern capitalism; and the influence of environment in an unfolding continent. It is necessary to begin this study with a survey of the European background.

Medieval thought on the sex relation was inconsistent. Women were regarded, sometimes as perils, again as objects of worship. The extremes embodied themselves in celibacy and in the minne-cult. Which was the more pregnant of depravity it would be hard to say.

Military mores are always, at bottom, disdainful of women. Chivalry with its sentimental immorality gave women hyperbolic praise in place of justice. Material advantage was the gist of medieval marriage. Women were an incident to their fiefs to be disposed of in loveless marriage. In the fifteenth century, cases of wives prostituted for gain to themselves and husbands were alleged in argument against matrimony. In the larger medieval cities there were official brothels—municipal, state, or church perquisites. Strangers of note were supplied prostitutes at municipal expense. The woman who in despair killed her child was put to cruel death, while the seducer perhaps even sat among the judges. Adultery of wives met severe punishment.

It may be that marriages turned out as well in the Middle Ages as now and that adultery was not more frequent. There was not wanting certain appreciation of woman as wife and mother. But over against modern divorce laxity may be set medieval ecclesiastical jugglery which sold divorces while pretending to prohibit them. In like manner ecclesiastical impediments to marriage could be removed for a fee.

It is impossible to harmonize medieval "love" with the strong emphasis laid by feudalism on female chastity. The desire for concentrated transmission of feudal estates to legitimate offspring tended to monogamy and wifely purity. Chastity became woman's main virtue. The wife's highest duty was to furnish a legitimate male heir to the family perquisites. Even the peasant sought marriage distinctly as a means of getting heirs. Chastity was not incumbent on men. A kind of restraint was, indeed, incumbent on the males of the nobility so far as women of their own class were concerned; for male relatives would visit swift punishment on the man that ruined a girl's prospects of becoming the broodmare to some noble house. But women of the working class were legitimate prey of the contemptuous bestiality of the nobles.

The master-class encouraged and controlled marriage among the menials as a means of propagating serfs and securing fees. The lord's power of intercourse with women of servile rank found expression in the jus primœ noctis which existed even into modern times.

It must be admitted that feudal days gave to women of the nobility a certain prestige and dignity. As chatelaines they even won military distinction in cases of siege. Prolonged separations emphasized the mutual needs of the two sexes. Life in the family remote from males of equal rank softened patriarchal asperities. The isolation of noble ladies exposing them somewhat to the lusts of base-born men required all knights to be their champions. Chivalry had, forsooth, its fairer side and performed a substantial service in grafting upon sex passion that romantic love which, distorted and perverted as it was by a sickly atmosphere in an age highly favorable to emotion rather than to reason, has become the basis of all that is fairest in sex relations to-day and holds the key to the future.

In the Middle Ages woman was in general an unrecorded cipher lost in obscure domestic toil and the bearing and rearing of numerous children. She generally welcomed a suitor at once for her one recourse was to lose her identity. Military slaughter tended to disturb the balance of the sexes and magnify the value of men. Perhaps the witch delusion which operated unbelievably to decimate the ranks of women was to their sex a blessing in disguise. But women in the Middle Ages probably enjoyed more equality with men than most of the time since. Some held responsible positions and displayed executive ability. In Saxon England women could be present at the local moot and even at the national Witanagemot. Norman rule reduced woman's rights, yet under feudalism women could hold high state office in default of male heirs.

In artisan circles, when the revival of commerce brought a wider market for the products of household industry, the patriarchal head of the family owned the product of all its toil. The standard of living in the home depended solely on his will. But gilds admitted women, and women often engaged in commercial pursuits along with their husbands or as their successors. In fourteenth century England, a married woman was permitted by law to act in business as if single in spite of her being under tutelage. In the craft gilds wife and daughters worked with husband and father at his craft. Journeymen could not marry but the master must have a wife of approved descent. The gild supervised the training of children; they were expected to follow their parents' craft. Some gilds forbade employment of wife and daughters and in the last days of the gilds this prohibition became a general rule. Girls were helped with money to marry or go into a religious house as they chose.

Woman's subordinate position in marriage came down through old Teutonic usage. In the old days of ordeal she was incapable of appearing in the lists in her own defense and had to be represented by a protector who, in case of wives, was of course the husband. Even late in the Middle Ages "ein Weib zu kaufen" was the stock expression for getting married. The idea of sale was gone but its place had been taken by the notion of the transfer of authority. A woman was always under guardianship; the natural warden was the father; at marriage the wardship passed to the husband. The common law is voiced thus by a dramatic character: "I will be master of what is mine own. She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house, my household stuff, my field, my barn, my horse, my ox, my ass, my anything." The wife was merged in the husband; legally she did not exist.

Our traditional common law in cases of children and real estate left without a will gave a son, tho younger, inheritance before a daughter. In case of a daughter's seduction, her father's only recourse was on the ground that she was his servant and that the seducer had trespassed on his property and deprived him of the benefit of her labor. In nearly all the Teutonic codes the husband had the right to beat his wife. "Justice Brooke affirmeth plainly that if a man beat an outlaw, a traitor, a pagan, his villein, or his wife it is dispunish-able, because by the Law Common, these persons can have no action." "Wives in England," says an Antwerp merchant, 1599, "are entirely in the power of their husbands, their lives only excepted." Even in the eighteenth century, wife trading was an English custom. Until the reign of George IV burning at the stake was the legal penalty for wives that murdered their husbands.

Doubtless the reality of English life was less barbarous than the law; yet we are describing a man-made world in which economic dependence held woman in general to a servile level. Her training corresponded to her sphere. In medieval Europe peasant girls were taught to work in house and field, accept the conventional piety, barely to read and write, and then marry. All girls were taught the textile arts. Daughters of wealthy burghers had tutors and after the fourteenth century there were schools for them in most cities. Women in the castles had enjoyed the same education as men. The convents, also, had provided training for women. But the rise of the universities, boisterously masculine, detracted from the education of women and a studied contempt for women developed.

Many Renaissance writers gave woman a new recognition. At the Renaissance the position of women underwent a marked transformation. Some women became professors in Italian and Spanish universities. Erasmus wrote of and for women, though not with entire approval of equal educational opportunities for them. He said the wise man is aware that nothing is of greater advantage to woman's morals than worthy knowledge. Toward the close of feudalism girls were sent from castles or wealthy burgher homes to the castles of high nobles to acquire polish. In the fifteenth century an increasing number of women—often of the prosperous middle class—found opportunities, though limited, for literary and classical education. Sir Thomas More believed that education may agree equally well with both sexes. Agrippa (in a work published in 1530) asserted woman's superiority over man and pointed to man's tyranny as the reason for woman's dearth of achievement.

Like women, the younger children of the medieval dignitary were subordinate. Feudal lands were limited in area; hence title, property, rank, and power passed to one child—the oldest male. The family line was of huge social importance: status and worth depended on what one's forebears had done. Exaltation of the family in linear extension rather than expanse was vital to the prosperity of the landed class. In Germany, where the law of primogeniture was too lax, where all of a noble's children were noble and his estates free from entail, the continual multiplication of titles and subdivision of territories reduced most houses to relative poverty. The German noble might provide for younger sons by securing them appointment to some rich benefice but this practice augmented social unrest.

As chivalry sank in decadence the cities flourished and in them the busy, prosaic middle class whose rise burst forth in the Reformation. Bourgeois wives found complete satisfaction around the domestic hearth. In modest bourgeois circles small attention was given to the mental culture of children. Girls generally grew up under the sole supervision of their mothers, or at best enjoyed convent training directed to piety and domestic accomplishments, in which they became very proficient. Girls married even in their fourteenth year. Fathers attached no small importance to practical advantages in matrimony, and the longing of maidens for rich knights was widespread. It came to be no disgrace for a prince to marry a girl of the middle class, for such a match might serve as a means of reviving fading fortunes. Aeneas Sylvius (afterwards Pope Pius II) said of Germany about the middle of the fifteenth century: "Where is the woman (I do not speak of the nobility, but of the bourgeoisie) who does not glitter with gold? What profusion of gold and pearls, ornaments, reliquaries." By the sixteenth century, the castled knights saw the burghers living in houses that, to the dwellers in uncomfortable castles, seemed the height of luxury. The knights' ladies coveted the princely silks and velvets and jewels that decked the womenfolk of the bourgeoisie. Even when the medieval sumptuary laws forbidding the burghers to wear pearls and velvet were not disobeyed, the wives and daughters of the middle class could solace themselves with silks and diamonds. And to the noble lady, the exclusive privilege of wearing pearls and velvet was small comfort in default of the means of procuring them. The knights' attempts to rival the burghers brought on ruin. Switzerland saw a similar riot of conspicuous consumption.

Morals were lax. For the satisfaction of vanity and desire for enjoyment, the daughters of citizens often allowed themselves to be drawn aside from the path of womanly honor. In cases of seduction, where the suitor broke his word and tried to back out after betrothal, the practical father exacted rich compensation. The men were continually complaining against the women. In fifteenth century Germany children born out of wedlock were frequent, growing up in their father's house along with their half brothers and sisters; and for a long time no disgrace attached. Why should it in bourgeois circles, where there was no noble estate to be conserved?

In the fifteenth century, with improved hygienic conditions and favorable material conditions, there were, not uncommonly, families of twelve, fifteen, or even more children. A chronicle gives the city of Erfurt an average of eight to ten children per family. Idealism was not wanting. Albrecht von Eyb, in his treatise Whether a man ought to take a wife or not, printed in 1472, seems to speak for the Germany of his day when he says:

Marriage is a useful wholesome thing: by it many a conflict and war is quieted, relationship and good friendship formed, and the whole human race perpetuated. Matrimony is also a merry, pleasurable, and sweet thing. What is merrier and sweeter than the names of father and mother and the children hanging on their parents' necks? If married people have the right love and the right will for one another, their joy and sorrow are common to them and they enjoy the good things the more merrily and bear the adverse things the more easily.

Yet the position of woman was not high: her sphere was the home, and she was seldom mentioned.

The Protestant Revolution changed markedly the old order of life. The movement that is known as the Reformation had a strong economic element. It signified the rise to power of a new sovereign—the industrial, mercantile, commercial middle-class—which had long been falling heir to the power slipping from the hands of a decadent feudal aristocracy. Since the Reformation, the moneyed type has dominated the world.

Where this economic class was not strong enough, the Reformation proved abortive and spelled tragedy to the families that accepted it. Thus, in France, the Huguenots were forbidden to train their children in the faith. A royal decree in 1685 required that every child of five years and over be removed by the authorities from his Protestant parents. Protestant marriages were illegal and the offspring illegitimate. Girls were carried away to shame and parents had no power to interfere. Coligny was at first reluctant to publish his faith because of the suffering that would be entailed on his wife and household; but she preferred to be bold, so he avowed his religion and held worship daily in his family. Not all families in the riven lands enjoyed such unison.

An understanding of the significance of this great social revolution is essential, both on account of its general influence on the European institutions from which our civilization is derived and from the fact that it was this revolutionary middle-class, stern, sober, prudential, industrial, driven into exile by temporary triumphs of reaction or coming freely in pursuit of opportunity and economic gain, that made America.

Feudal militancy had subordinated family life to the affairs of war. With the passing of the old chivalric notions a good deal of false sentiment died away and the attitude of men toward women was markedly altered. The Reformation developed a rather matter-of-fact view. The bourgeoisie may well claim the honor of being first to assert that romantic love is the ideal basis of marriage; but the constraints of private wealth have always operated to frustrate this ideal. Though suppression of convents curtailed woman's opportunity, the Reformation did remove the stain put on marriage and the family by the law of celibacy. Celibates began to marry. Luther, by word and example, glorified marriage and the family. He said: "O! what a great rich and magnificent blessing there is in the married state; what joy is shown to man in matrimony by his descendants!" His recognition of the normal sex impulse to propagation appears in this utterance: "Unless specially endowed by a rare, divine grace, a woman can no more dispense with a man, than ... with food, drink, sleep, and other natural needs. In the same way a man cannot do without a woman."

Luther gave woman no chivalric admiration; yet, while emphasizing motherhood, he did not regard woman as a mere bearer of children. Marriage signified to him the moral restraint and religious sanctification of natural impulse. None should marry unless competent to instruct their children in the elements of religion. He emphasized the nurture of children, stressing honor to parents and reverence to God and making no distinction between boys and girls as to need of education nor between men and women as to right to teach. Home should be made a delight but firmness must not be sacrificed. According to him the wife's union to the husband is a fit symbol of the soul's union to Christ by faith. Whatever Christ possesses, the believing soul may claim as its own.


Excerpted from The American Family in the Colonial Period by Arthur W. Calhoun. Copyright © 2014 Arthur W. Calhoun. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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