Two recent books reflect efforts to integrate more fully the history of childhood and youth with the larger social, economic, and political history of early America. While these volumes have very different intended audiences and focal points, both of these edited anthologies indicate the direction that this recent scholarship has taken, emphasizing in particular the ways in which prevailing visions of ideal families and their function were actually enacted by communities, translating into a diversity of childhood experiences.
Children and Youth in a New Nation is the second volume in a series edited by James Marten, following chronologically after Children in Colonial America.1 In this thematically focused volume, Marten builds on Jacqueline Reinier’s foundational argument that childrearing in the new nation offers essential insight on the new American republican experiment, given contemporary investment in shaping children into the next generation of virtuous citizens.2 Marten offers a sampling of ten essays together with three excerpted primary sources to show how the history of childhood and the history of the new republic could be better integrated, in the name of better comprehending both in a period in which half the population was under the age of majority. At the same time, while building upon existing historiography, this volume demonstrates new directions in the history of childhood, especially an emphasis on the diversity of children’s experiences amid the social turbulence of immigration, urbanization, and early industrialization.
Essays in this volume are organized into four sections that reflect key themes in the historiography of childhood for the post-Revolutionary period, as well as new interpretive directions. The first section considers the generally neglected experiences of children during the war for independence [End Page 660] itself, reflecting recent interest in childhood amid military conflict. Essays by Vincent DiGirolamo and Caroline Cox offer analysis of the active role of children and youth in the conflict, as post-boys conveying revolutionary ideas across communities, and as boy soldiers. Those experiences form a sharp contrast with Martha Jefferson’s very sheltered elite childhood, described by Cynthia Kierner, highlighting the diverse range of ways in which war affected young people’s lives and their identity formation.
The second section offers a range of essays that build on prior scholarship considering the construction of a new ideal for a virtuous republican childhood. These essays are a strength of the book, indicating recent efforts to consider how ideological shifts regarding childhood were interpreted and enacted within different ethnic and religious communities. Martha Saxton’s essay in particular is a model of this approach, analyzing how families from different ethnic communities in St. Louis applied notions of ideal womanhood in their daughters’ education, while all ultimately denied enslaved African American mothers and daughters access to those same ideals in order to underwrite that education, economically. Andrew Frank evaluates the ways that the education of mixed-race Creek children reflected the different cultural ideals and relative control of their white fathers and Creek kin, and Todd Brenneman contrasts the different constructions of childhood in the theology of emerging Protestant denominations in the period.
A third section offers essays that continue prior scholarly discussion of early national concerns that children should have an appropriately republican education to craft them into virtuous American citizens. Included here are essays by A. Kristen Foster, analyzing schoolgirls’ own perspectives on their educations, and Gretchen Adams, arguing for the central role of the content of early national schoolbooks in creating and conveying a national ideology.
The fourth section offers two essays sampling efforts in the early national period to systematize the provision of social welfare; Nancy Zey and Rebecca Noel offer essays that analyze the standardization of provisions for the apprenticeship of poor and orphaned minors in Natchez after acquisition by the United States, and reformers’ efforts...