restricted access The Littlest Commonwealth? The Neglected Importance of Sibling Relations in American Family History
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Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 22-30



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The Littlest Commonwealth?
The Neglected Importance Of Sibling Relations In American Family History

Wayne Bodle


Annette Atkins. We Grew Up Together: Brothers and Sisters in Nineteenth-Century America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. 208 pp. Illustrations and index. $29.95.

Lorri Glover. All Our Relations: Blood Ties and Emotional Bonds Among the Early South Carolina Gentry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 248 pp. Appendixes, notes, and index. $39.95.

The persistent inattention to siblings in the otherwise-booming field of early American family history is truly perplexing. There was virtually no mention of the subject in the pioneering mid-twentieth-century surveys of the colonial family. 1 The "new social history" of the last generation put nuclear households into play as historical actors, but narrow understandings of the elements sustaining their "patriarchal" character--Protestant theology, paternal longevity, and the intergenerational transfer of landed property--focused our attention on their vertical authority systems and longitudinal operations rather than on their horizontal internal structures or lateral ties to the community or society. 2 The blossoming of academic interest in issues of gender has not, as yet, noticeably sharpened our perspectives on lateral family dynamics. The synthetic and encyclopedic projects of the past decade that have helped to codify the discipline seem, if anything, only to have enshrined our sense that the sibling cohort did not matter very much. 3

One scholar has recently argued that "horizontal solidarities were difficult to discern or maintain" in early American families. Maybe this is so, but how can we be sure of that until we have looked? In not looking, Americanists are only ignoring what other scholars have long disregarded. The curious lack of interest in siblings has been remarked on for early modern European family studies. And historians are following in social scientists' footsteps. For a generation, until the early 1980s, sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists, paid attention to the sib mainly when calling each other's attention to their lack of attention to that subject. 4 [End Page 22]

Fortunately, historiographical "moments" often announce themselves by multiple births. 1970 was the year of the "Four Horsemen," when the study of colonial New England towns burst into scholarly prominence. 1972 brought a pair of books that virtually required North American colonialists to include the West Indies in their synthesizing generalizations. 1980 witnessed an acceleration in the growth of American women's history, spurred materially by the appearance in that year of two complementary studies of the women of the Revolutionary generation. We can at least hope, then, that the simultaneous appearance of the two very different but equally welcome volumes reviewed here will signal an end to this curious drought about siblings. 5

These books share certain elements. Both limit their attention to middling or elite white American families. Both authors acknowledge that their studies may be biased toward functional or stable families. Both are interested in the implications of sibling-oriented research for questions of gender. And both treat the sibling cohort almost entirely from the perspective of the adult life course. The books also have some important differences. Lorri Glover focuses on the colonial and early national South Carolina "Low Country," while Annette Atkins works on a more "national" stage between the middle of the nineteenth century and about 1920. Glover reconstructs a small and discrete universe of families whose members founded Carolina in the 1670s and worked to consolidate their elite status there during the eighteenth century. Atkins offers a selection of case studies that range across the northern and western United States. Glover presents a much tighter interpretive argument, in a conventional structure reflecting a sophisticated doctoral dissertation ably revised. Atkins treats a wider range of questions along a shifting series of fronts and boldly interjects personal perspectives into her analysis. Ultimately, the books combine in their strengths and weaknesses to claim our careful attention.

As Glover shows, sibling relations were critical in the creation of South Carolina. The colony was settled neither by pious families like...


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