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Citizen Bachelors

Manhood and the Creation of the United States

John Gilbert McCurdy

Publication Year: 2009

In 1755 Benjamin Franklin observed "a man without a wife is but half a man" and since then historians have taken Franklin at his word. In Citizen Bachelors, John Gilbert McCurdy demonstrates that Franklin's comment was only one side of a much larger conversation. Early Americans vigorously debated the status of unmarried men and this debate was instrumental in the creation of American citizenship.

In a sweeping examination of the bachelor in early America, McCurdy fleshes out a largely unexamined aspect of the history of gender. Single men were instrumental to the settlement of the United States and for most of the seventeenth century their presence was not particularly problematic. However, as the colonies matured, Americans began to worry about those who stood outside the family. Lawmakers began to limit the freedoms of single men with laws requiring bachelors to pay higher taxes and face harsher penalties for crimes than married men, while moralists began to decry the sexual immorality of unmarried men. But many resisted these new tactics, including single men who reveled in their hedonistic reputations by delighting in sexual horseplay without marital consequences.

At the time of the Revolution, these conflicting views were confronted head-on. As the incipient American state needed men to stand at the forefront of the fight for independence, the bachelor came to be seen as possessing just the sort of political, social, and economic agency associated with citizenship in a democratic society. When the war was won, these men demanded an end to their unequal treatment, sometimes grudgingly, and the citizen bachelor was welcomed into American society.

Drawing on sources as varied as laws, diaries, political manifestos, and newspapers, McCurdy shows that in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the bachelor was a simultaneously suspicious and desirable figure: suspicious because he was not tethered to family and household obligations yet desirable because he was free to study, devote himself to political office, and fight and die in battle. He suggests that this dichotomy remains with us to this day and thus it is in early America that we find the origins of the modern-day identity of the bachelor as a symbol of masculine independence. McCurdy also observes that by extending citizenship to bachelors, the founders affirmed their commitment to individual freedom, a commitment that has subsequently come to define the very essence of American citizenship.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-6


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pp. 7-8

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

...In December 1997 I went to see a production of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite with two male friends. Sitting there in the balcony of a Kansas City theater, surrounded by married couples and small children, I felt a certain amount of smugness. Weren’t we fortunate to live in a time where one could choose to remain unmarried? I thought back to the story of Tchaikovsky’s own troubled marriage and ...

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Introduction: Bachelors in Early America

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pp. 1-11

...November 1772 was a particularly gloomy month for young James Madison. Fifteen years later he would write the U.S. Constitution, thirty-seven years later he would be inaugurated as the fourth president of the United States, yet all of this was too far off for the twenty-one year old to see. Madison wallowed in his own loneliness, trapped at Montpelier, his father’s plantation in rural Orange County...

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1.“ Unmarried Men Are Best Friends, Best Masters, Best Servants”: Singles in Early Colonial America

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pp. 12-49

...Being a single man in colonial Massachusetts certainly had its downsides. At least it did for Stephen Hoppin, Junior, who in 1672 was summoned before the selectmen of Dorchester to account for his life. Standing alone before them, Hoppin listened carefully as the five councilors inquired into the details of his existence. They had received word that he was not regularly employed, a situation they...

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2. “If a Single Man and Able He Shall Make Satisfaction”: The Bachelor Laws

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pp. 50-83

...In the summer of 1703 New Yorkers readied for another imperial conflict. England had declared war on France a year earlier in a struggle for control of the Spanish throne. Although Americans rarely fretted over dynastic intrigue, they had learned that wars that began in Europe rarely stayed in Europe. New Yorkers in particular worried that the struggle might embolden Indians on the frontier to attack ...

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3. “Every One of Them Shall Be Chained about the Middle to a Post Like a Monkey”: Literary Representations of the Bachelor

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pp. 84-119

...By 1730 Great Britain had planted more than a dozen colonies on mainland North America and scattered many more among the islands of the West Indies. Yet in the opinion of one particularly vociferous member of Parliament, it was not too late for the king to carve one more settlement out of the wilderness. James Edward Oglethorpe envisioned a colony unlike any other, a colony where those Britons who ...

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4. “I Resolve to Live a Batchelor While I Remain in This Wicked Country”: Living Single in Early America

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pp. 120-159

...In 1755 Robert Treat Paine contemplated “whether the State of Matrimony be necessary for the Wellbeing or Benefit of the Common Wealth?” A friend had raised the question in a letter and Paine, then a twenty-four-year-old Harvard graduate and part-time minister, gave the matter serious thought. In response to the question Paine informed his friend that he had not yet married and preferred it that way. ...

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5. “The Bachelor Is the Only Free Man”: The Single Man and the American Revolution

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pp. 160-197

...In 1767 Stephen Salisbury set up shop in Worcester, Massachusetts. Only twenty-one years old, Salisbury had ventured west from Boston to establish a branch of the family’s dry goods business in the New England interior. Salisbury was the junior partner to his older brother and so he kept in constant contact with his relatives on matters both professional and personal. The family worried about ...

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Epilogue: Bachelors since 1800

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pp. 198-202

...In 1856 lifelong bachelor James Buchanan was elected the fifteenth president of the United States. The election turned on slavery and fears of disunion, with Buchanan’s Democrats predicting a civil war if the newly formed Republican Party succeeded at the polls. Amid these great issues of the day, Buchanan’s marital status became part of the debate. America had had widowed presidents before but never ...

Appendix: Singles’ Laws, 1500 –1800

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pp. 203-212


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pp. 213-260


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pp. 261-268

E-ISBN-13: 9780801459047
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801447884

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: 1

OCLC Number: 609222274
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Citizen Bachelors

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Subject Headings

  • Bachelors -- United States -- History -- 17th century.
  • Bachelors -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • United States -- Social life and customs -- To 1775.
  • United States -- Social life and customs -- 1775-1783.
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