- A History of Household Government in America
In recent years, several studies examining the ways in which marriage has not only been a civil institution and legal arrangement historically, but also a foundation of civic life with important connections to the state, have expanded our understanding of American marriages and family relationships. Carole Shammas' A History of Household Government in America is a welcome addition to this literature; however, she shifts the focus to the household, defined not as "those persons related to one another by genes or marriage but... a broader group held together today by coresidency and earlier by dependents' relationship with the head."1 The phrase "household government" in the title hints at key features in Shammas' analysis—governing within the household, usually embodied by the male head, and external economic, legal, and social conditions that affect, and even assume, that governance.
In this brief volume, Shammas covers a lot of ground, beginning with historical sociological theories of the household. She then traces the origins of colonial households, comprised of a household head, usually the husband and father, and dependents ranging from his wife and children to extended kin and bound laborers. Shammas argues that during the colonial period through the Early Republic household heads' authority declined for several reasons. In the seventeenth century, local governments could intervene if households did not meet community standards regarding orderly behavior by dependents. Well into the colonial period local governments had the authority to act if heads of household failed to meet the economic needs of their dependents. As these public interventions eroded household heads' authority, the American Revolution brought additional decline through what Shammas calls weak support for household heads to control the "exit" of dependents from the household, evidenced by low numbers of marriage contracts and lax methods of religious and state enforcement if fathers tried to intervene in their children's choice of marriage partners. In addition, male household heads tended to keep property in their own hands rather than disburse it to dependents in their lifetime; the tradeoff for retaining property, however, was the decline of household heads' authority in dependents' life choices.
Shammas' chapter on the "household civil war" of 1840-1880 suggests an intriguing way of thinking about familial changes, through an examination of experiments in different living arrangements and the rise of social welfare institutions in this tumultuous period. She notes, "the whole idea was not to preserve families, but to preserve orderly family government, which often meant encouraging small, weak households to disband and join up with larger, stronger ones," such as orphanages and similar institutions.2 However, by the turn of the twentieth century social welfare experts re-evaluated these approaches and pushed for a return to private households even if it meant supplementing its income with public funds; Shammas labels this an "institutional U-turn."
One of the strengths of Shammas' work is her analysis of the relationship [End Page 516] between households and cultural assumptions related to race. For the colonial period, this allows Shammas to consider not only the distinctions between different European nations' influence on their respective colonial household legal systems, but also shifts slightly how we think about European critiques of Indian household organization, especially related to matrilneality. She also turns her attention to how the institution of slavery and indentured labor affected white households and authority, as well as how freedom significantly increased the number of households after the Civil War and created new forms of state intervention into household authority. Her attention to Indian boarding schools offers as a useful contrast to changes in institutions; her analysis of the religious and civic conflict that was part of race and religious-based institutionalism is suggestive.
Shammas also offers a provocative discussion of global household changes as a point of comparison with current American household organization. She makes clear that the discomfort with male headed households being displaced by female headed households is a constant through America's past and continues into the twenty-first century. The figures she...