restricted access Afterword: Contending Masculinities in Early America

From: New Men

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256  | Afterword Contending Masculinities in Early America Toby L. Ditz Until recently, scholars and laypeople thought of early America as a world in which aristocratic ideals of manhood anchored in the claims of blood and honor dominated the cultural landscape. We even said that these ideals were “hegemonic.” By this we meant that other social groups deferred to elites, granting their superiority as men and their entitlement to a disproportionate share of economic and political resources. Nonaristocratic standards of manliness were at best culturally marginal and associated with less powerful social groups and individuals. In this view, the American Revolution and its rupture with the “Old World” broke the grip of aristocratic standards of manhood and unleashed the potential of new democratic manhood ideals. This collection of essays drives home the point that historians of gender and manhood have been making for some time now: several models of masculinity competed with one another throughout the colonial era and would continue to do so after the revolution. What is most striking about early America is the sheer variety of manhood ideals and their associated practices.1 This variety creates a triple challenge for historians. The first is to identify the conditions that fostered this variety. The second is to trace the strands of competition and mutual influence among them and how they helped to structure disparities of wealth and power among men along racial and class lines. And there is a third task too: to show how these standards of manhood structured men’s relationship to women. The essays in this volume collectively rise to this threefold challenge. Two features of early America were especially important in shaping standards of manhood and their associated practices. The first is that the American colonies were highly militarized societies located at the periphery of the European empires that were responsible for the conquest of the Americas. European settlers in the Americas were located far from metropolitan cen- Afterword  |  257 ters of political and military administration in an era when travel and communications were slow and dangerous. The requirements of conquest, the unending rivalries among the European powers for colonial possessions, and the persisting presence of powerful native American groups also ensured that the British American colonies would be highly militarized and nearly continuously at war.2 These conditions created unusual opportunities for new standards of masculinity to proliferate as men jockeyed for material and social resources in the era of first settlement and later. Take the men who settled at Jamestown . They had, according to John McCurdy, not one, but at least two models of “military masculinity” available to them: an older aristocratic ideal that rested claims to high military office on noble birth ratified by competent command, and a newer ideal supported by men like John Smith that put a premium on “dedication,” “physical prowess,” and a proven record of bravery on the battlefield. These competing standards signaled a struggle for recognition among men of different classes. The older ideal confirmed the high social status of men who were already wellborn; Smith’s hypermasculine ideal suited men whose social origins were more obscure and who sought to enhance their social standing by rising through the military ranks on their merits. In this setting, aristocratic ideals were certainly not hegemonic ; rather, they were under considerable pressure. The stakes are not trivial: McCurdy argues that these competing models of military masculinity can help us better understand political rivalries among Jamestown’s early leaders, and thus the notorious instability of the Jamestown settlement in the early seventeenth century. Turning to the American Revolution, we also find that competing models of manhood structured military life. Janet Lindman points out that evangelical military chaplains were “gender brokers” who bridged the tensions between two different styles of masculinity: the violence, physical strength, and courage inhering in contemporary martial masculinity, and a new style of evangelical Christian manhood, which incorporated virtues such as humility, service, and piety that were elsewhere coded as feminine. When these chaplains promoted their own brand of patriotic Christian manhood, they were also attempting to carve out positions of cultural authority for themselves in an era when neither elite officers nor the rank and file automatically deferred any longer (if they ever did) to ministers. These and other essays also confirm that the military is an important location for examining how European state builders and imperial officials developed new techniques for disciplining and securing the loyalty of their 258  |  Toby L. Ditz citizen-subjects. John Smith...