- Early American Manhood: Worlds Gained, Worlds Lost
John McCurdy and Richard Godbeer aim to revise our understanding of early American manhood. Using diaries, letters, sermons, literary works, and laws, both authors examine previously overlooked aspects of men’s lived experience and uncover how important changing gender expectations were in the early American republic. In Citizen Bachelors, McCurdy convincingly argues that bachelors contributed to American social and political development long before the twentieth-century “age of the bachelor.” He demonstrates how bachelors were part of a “social revolution” (202) that changed the “division of gendered power” (8). In The Overflowing of Friendship, Godbeer shows how a male sociability based on mutual respect and love existed alongside competitive and contentious male relations, and how sentimental male friendship proved essential to the “creation of worthy republican citizens” (12). Scholars of gender and the early republic will find both of these well-written, thoroughly researched works rewarding. Both deepen our understanding of masculinities and developing gendered power relations during the period. Both are challenging yet not overly long works, and therefore excellent for assigning in courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
McCurdy traces how bachelors’ experiences and social roles shifted between the sixteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. In the sixteenth century, single individuals lived under a patriarch’s or master’s dominion. As propertyless dependents, single men and women lacked political rights. Perceived as “men-in-training” (21), single men required especially close supervision as they developed. For that reason, local governments assigned those without a parent or master to a household that could oversee their growth. With these measures, lawmakers aimed to prevent idleness and immorality in their young men and to cultivate hard-working self-discipline instead.
In the second half of the seventeenth century, single men frequently moved out of their fathers’ homes before getting married. Released from their parents’ supervision, these young men engaged in all manner of dissipation. Some fathered children out of wedlock, thereby laying claim to one of the traditional markers of independent men. To assert some control over these no longer dependent men, lawmakers passed a series of bachelor laws that applied to unmarried men who owned property, regardless of age.
Bachelor laws compelled single men to shoulder civic obligations rather than leaving them to a master or father. In 1703, for example, New York officials taxed property-holding unmarried men aged twenty-five and older. According to McCurdy, this marked the first time men were divided into categories based on “marital status rather than property” ownership (8). Legislators in other states followed suit, largely because they believed married men with families were “unduly burdened” (5) with the cost of raising citizen offspring. As bachelors took [End Page 443] on more duties, married men were exempted from some taxes, conscription, and prosecution for debt and other crimes.
Because bachelor laws treated single men as a group, they developed a “vibrant, personal identity” by the 1750s (121). They also claimed political privileges previously reserved for property-owning married men. If bachelors exhibited a new consciousness of their single state, they did not all whole-heartedly celebrate their freedom from families and their leisurely homosocial and heterosocial sociability. Like political and literary commentators, some bachelors wondered if they could both revel in their liberties and lay claim to manhood. But as they took on more civic duties, bachelors became increasingly convinced that they deserved political rights. As McCurdy adroitly posits, the bachelor laws “not only politicized single men, they masculinized them” (8).
By the Revolution’s close, states had repealed bachelor laws, but the social revolution was complete: unmarried men had entered the circle of masculine independence. No longer identified by their single state, they were now citizens by virtue of being men. Regardless of their age or rank, bachelors voted along with their married brethren. They expressed a self-conscious, autonomous masculine identity that included more...