Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States
According to John Gilbert McCurdy, bachelorhood emerged as a distinct identity in eighteenth-century America. Whereas the cultural force of mastery, which relied on property ownership, rank, and a respectable vocation, mattered more than gender and marital status in the seventeenth century, ideas about the peculiar nature of single men obtained great power in the decades leading to the American Revolution. The result, suggests the author, was a broad, albeit paradoxical, transformation in the social position and reputation of men who did not marry. On one hand, bachelors were increasingly vilified as dangerous, wasteful, and sexually venal individuals. On the other, they acquired important political rights and a self-justifying swagger. No matter the particular valence assigned to unmarried males, bachelors were becoming a coherent group with particular interests and attitudes.
After a helpful overview of bachelors in early modern England, McCurdy turns his attention to seventeenth-century America, where "unmarried [End Page 503] adults . . . constitute[d] a considerable minority" (29). In Puritan New England, laws "requiring single people be put to service" were less concerned with punishing bachelors than with preserving a specific social order and the values of hard work (33). In the Chesapeake, the high percentage of single men meant that some bachelors began to organize themselves in groups, and Lieutenant Governor Francis Nicholson even organized Olympic games with bachelor competitors. Still, the dividing line between independent mastery and dependent servanthood subsumed all other differences in seventeenth-century American society, which in turn meant that a coherent, self-conscious bachelor movement failed to take shape.
Things began to change, asserts McCurdy, with the appearance of various "bachelor laws" in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In Pennsylvania, the punishment for rape was harsher for unmarried persons than for married individuals, while married adulterers were imprisoned for longer periods of time than singles (56). McCurdy attributes these statutes to Quaker piety and an attempt to bring into being sex regulations that embodied new, affectionate patriarch ideals. That may be so but because these laws generally referred to "unmarried person[s]" rather than unmarried men, it is questionable whether the term "bachelor laws" is an appropriate moniker for this phenomenon (56). Indeed, McCurdy acknowledges that the laws were designed to protect innocent family members rather than to set apart bachelors for special treatment. The taxes imposed on single men were noticeably different, however. Enacted during wartime for the purpose of raising revenue, these laws identified bachelors as a unique group capable of paying higher levies than married men with families to support. In so doing, bachelor taxes masculinized duty and effectively replaced older distinctions between the aged propertied and the youthful propertyless with the split between married and unmarried men.
Literary depictions of bachelors varied widely, and single men were portrayed at different times and in different venues as the cause of population decline, a drain on the resources of society, neutral observers of the marriage state, sexually incontinent fiends, indecisive thinkers, and chaste and moderate social contributors. Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the best known and most prolific commentator on the topic of bachelors, put forth a "consistently antibachelor" analysis, frequently equating single men with a lack of manliness (107). Yet as McCurdy astutely observes, Franklin simultaneously opposed bachelor taxes, in part because he "questioned the long-standing [End Page 504] Anglo-American belief that a single man had more money than a married man and thus could afford greater financial obligations to the state" (110).
Although legal changes and literary depictions shaped expectations about bachelors, they nonetheless "stood at some distance from the lived experience" (122). Based on a survey of two dozen New England bachelor diaries, the author traces a shift in the eighteenth century from reticent sociability to masculine independence and relatively more pronounced sexuality. Given the sparseness and limited number of extant diaries documenting bachelor life, this conclusion seems somewhat overdrawn. But McCurdy is surely correct to challenge those historians who have suggested that eighteenth-century bachelors were uniformly vilified and degraded. In an illuminating section on the Tuesday Club of Annapolis (a social group oriented around poetry recitation, music, and jesting), the author convincingly argues that bachelors confidently turned the tables on their married counterparts, ridiculing them as cuckolded party-poopers.
Although the status of bachelors underwent subtle, evolutionary change in the years leading to 1776, the American Revolutionary era witnessed dramatic transformation. In particular, "the assignation of unique legal obligations to unmarried men ended with the creation of the United States" (162). War was once again a prime mover of change, and even though married soldiers were idealized as protectors of the family, single, young men served on the American patriot side in disproportionate numbers. As a result, arguments for commensurate rights ("whereby a person earned privileges such as suffrage through the performance of obligations such as military service") obtained great power and "Propertyless single men were among the first Americans to benefit from this [republican] formulation of citizenship" (9, 171). The enfranchisement of single men in turn cemented the disenfranchisement of women, who generally did not serve as soldiers in the army or militia. To be sure, negative depictions of bachelors persisted. But more and more, countervailing arguments appeared. Some of these arguments suggested not only that bachelors were supremely patriotic, but also that the decision to remain single was nothing less than the liberty to make choices about one's life.
Although readers will likely quibble, as I have done, with particular aspects of this book, the overarching argument about the emergence of a bachelor identity is compelling. In addition, McCurdy's contention that bachelorhood "was not the antithesis of early American manhood but a variation [End Page 505] on it" represents a most welcome intervention (7). Citizen Bachelors is thus a thoughtful, intriguing, and valuable contribution to our understanding of early American social, cultural, and political life.