Honor Sachs’s Home Rule: Households, Manhood, and National Expansion on the Eighteenth-Century Kentucky Frontier is a study of the settlement of Kentucky and its early political development in the late eighteenth century. Yet Sachs, rather than just retelling the story of Long Hunters, Indian fighters, and early Kentucky’s “articulate center,” places the household center stage and thereby sheds light on the experiences of “all settlers—men and women, free, slave, servant, child” (p. 10).
White men in early Kentucky struggled to secure what they believed to be their patriarchal birthright: a freehold, the indispensable attribute of masculine independence. Yet two factors—interracial violence and massive hoarding of lands by wealthy speculators—thwarted the aspirations of frontiersmen. The first, Indian warfare, forced families into communal stations—militarized compounds in which “settlers structured their homes and their lives around collective protection rather than personal independence” (p. 18). Yet even after the stations were abandoned, the chronic danger of Indian attack continued to undermine “the ability of men to protect their families and dependents” (p. 19). Likewise frustrating white male Kentuckians’ ability to secure mastery was land hoarding, the work of wealthy and well-connected eastern elites who had “turned the practice of land speculation into a high art” (p. 28). Abetted by the Virginia Land Law of 1779, speculators gobbled up huge quantities of real estate and created a frontier of tenant farmers. One speculator, John May, personally amassed almost a million acres, enough land to supply a 200-acre farm for 4,155 families. [End Page 75]
Thus “compromised as husbands and fathers,” many frontiersmen were forced to work the land of others or hire themselves out—a key example of the latter being the saltworks at Bullitt’s Lick, which employed dozens of landless men and women working for subsistence-level wages (p. 35). As migration exploded in the last fifteen years of the eighteenth century, Kentucky became the scene of “some of the starkest economic inequality Americans had ever known” (p. 43). Poor people who risked so much to improve their circumstances found little upward mobility in the West: “Kentucky began to look less like an agrarian paradise and more like a preindustrial purgatory” (p. 73).
Throughout this story of frustrated manhood, Sachs reminds us that the patriarchal independence so coveted by men was predicated on the dependence of wives, children, servants, and slaves. Sachs subtly and skillfully intertwines well-known problems of class resentment and frontier inequality with gender and thereby opens up new vistas of early Kentucky history: of young women dreaming of female autonomy; of a few exceptional women—for example, Annie Christian, the proprietor of the Bullitt’s Lick saltworks—who actually did acquire a great deal of wealth and power; and of, far more typically, widows, abandoned wives, and unmarried mothers seeking public relief, forced to undergo the humiliation of magistrates scrutinizing their private lives.
Yet, as Sachs argues, if “female poverty was a problem that lawmakers were prepared to address,” masses of impoverished men “were ticking time bombs” (pp. 92–93). Their bitterness led to a “crisis of masculinity” in which their frustration could take violent form, as frontier rebellions in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania had graphically illustrated (p. 93). Thus, in what is perhaps the most intriguing chapter of the book, Sachs weaves together gender and family history with public concerns to create an altogether convincing account of how Kentucky elites were forced to accept universal white male suffrage as a means of assuaging the landless majority: “Kentuckians forged a political consensus that privileged whiteness and manhood over wealth and land ownership as the prerequisites for civic life” (p. 123). [End Page 76] The end result was not so much a herrenvolk democracy as a herrenvolk patriarchy.
Home Rule is a beautifully written, tightly argued study, and any criticisms are minor. Although Sachs makes a wholly convincing case that individual migrants’ sense of masculinity was severely compromised, the endemic violence of early Kentucky had another, wholly...