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Domestic Intimacies

Incest and the Liberal Subject in Nineteenth-Century America

By Brian Connolly

Publication Year: 2014

Although it is commonly thought that incest has been taboo throughout history, nineteenth-century Americans evinced a great cultural anxiety that the prohibition was failing. Theologians debated the meaning and limits of biblical proscription, while jurists abandoned such injunctions and invented a new prohibition organized around the nuclear family. Novelists crafted fictional tales of accidental incest resulting from the severed ties between public and private life, while antislavery writers lamented the ramifications of breaking apart enslaved families. Phrenologists and physiologists established reproduction as the primary motivation of the incest prohibition while naturalizing the incestuous eroticism of sentimental family affection. Ethnographers imagined incest as the norm in so-called primitive societies in contrast to modern civilization. In the absence of clear biological or religious limitations, the young republic developed numerous, varied, and contradictory incest prohibitions.

Domestic Intimacies offers a wide-ranging, critical history of incest and its various prohibitions as they were defined throughout the nineteenth century. Historian Brian Connolly argues that at the center of these convergent anxieties and debates lay the idea of the liberal subject: an autonomous individual who acted on his own desires yet was tempered by reason, who enjoyed a life in public yet was expected to find his greatest satisfaction in family and home. Always lurking was the need to exercise personal freedom with restraint; indeed, the valorization of the affectionate family was rooted in its capacity to act as a bulwark against licentiousness. However it was defined, incest was thus not only perceived as a threat to social stability; it also functioned to regulate social relations—within families and between classes as well as among women and men, slaves and free citizens, strangers and friends. Domestic Intimacies overturns conventional histories of American liberalism by placing the fear of incest at the heart of nineteenth-century conflicts over public life and privacy, kinship and individualism, social contracts and personal freedom.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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Introduction. Liberalism’s Incestuous Subject

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pp. 1-21

In 1828, in the first edition of his dictionary, Noah Webster defined incest as ‘‘the crime of cohabitation or sexual commerce between persons related within the degrees wherein marriage is prohibited by the law of a country.’’1 As definitions go, this one seems rather straightforward. Yet, as far as incest goes, it presents numerous questions. The one thing we think we know about incest is that its prohibition is universal and has been in existence...

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Chapter 1. Literature

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pp. 22-49

Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century and reaching its apex in the midnineteenth century, a discourse of the private family came to dominate visions of social and political life in the United States. Where previously the family had been conceived as the central institution of social and economic life, serving as a ‘‘little commonwealth’’ analogous to the state, by the midnineteenth century, at least in prescriptive literature and sentimental novels, ...

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Chapter 2. Theology

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pp. 50-79

In 1843 the Dutch Reformed minister Philip Milledoler asked, ‘‘Is it lawful for a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister?’’ Noting this was ‘‘a question which may appear at first sight to be of minor importance,’’ Milledoler argued that ‘‘the minor importance of this subject . . . is . . . not real; for if we view it in its bearing upon the happiness of individuals—upon the purity of the church and upon the best interests of the community at large, ...

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Chapter 3. Law

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pp. 80-121

In 1851, in response to a query concerning incestuous marriage from the London-based Marriage Law Reform Association (MLRA), Charles Mason, an Iowa Supreme Court justice, wrote, ‘‘our laws make no prohibitions what ever as to inter-marriages between kindred, nor has the crime of incest a place on our statute books.’’1 This was likely more than the MLRA was looking for when they circulated a query to jurists, theologians, and other, ...

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Chapter 4. Reproduction

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pp. 122-165

As theologians and jurists multiplied novel justifications and explanations of the incest prohibition, one remained mostly submerged: incestuous reproduction and its hereditary consequences. To be sure, on occasion a jurist or theologian invoked its potential for degenerative hereditary consequences, but this was usually a minority voice. Indeed, even when it was invoked, it tended to bear little scrutiny and was often at odds with other explications...

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Chapter 5. Slavery

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pp. 166-209

In the 1860 novel Adela, the Octoroon, H. L. Hosmer, an antislavery minister and supporter of colonization, painted a picture of the depravity of plantation life based in the incestuous actions of slaveholders. When George Tidbald, a southern patriarch and congressman, returned to his plantation from Washington, D.C., he found one of his slaves on her deathbed. Crissy, the slave, was also Tidbald’s daughter, his lover, and the mother of...

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Epilogue. The Geopolitics of Incest

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pp. 210-222

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the link between incest and the liberal subject had been fully established. Indeed, to think about the modernity of the liberal subject was to think about his relation to the incest prohibition, and his penchant for incest. The incest prohibition had been remade across the nineteenth century in order to both produce and regulate that liberal individual and the bourgeois, sentimental family...

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Appendix. The Theoretical Life of the Incest Prohibition

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pp. 223-232

Early American history (and the discipline of history, more generally) has had a relatively anti-, or better, atheoretical orientation. The incest prohibition, however, has led a life of mostly theoretical abstraction. Both claims are potentially belied by some counterevidence, but on the whole these seem to be rather accurate descriptions. One aim of this book, however, has been to undermine both of these claims....


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pp. 233-286


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pp. 287-290


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pp. 291-294

E-ISBN-13: 9780812209853
E-ISBN-10: 0812209850
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812246216

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 5 illus.
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Early American Studies
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Daniel K. Richter, Kathleen M. Brown, Max Cavitch, and David Waldstreicher See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 878023809
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Domestic Intimacies

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Subject Headings

  • Domestic relations -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Individualism -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Liberalism -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Incest -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
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