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  • Popular Insurgency and Childhood: How Children Appropriated Adult Political Dissent in the Antebellum Southern Highlands
  • Janis de la Mer (bio)

The enemy now, being aware of the defense within, suddenly dropped the stone and ran in at the door. We were not to be taken by surprise. Again were the sharp lances thrust out. One hit with decided effect in the . . . stomach; the other, as he stooped doubled by the pain, in the face, inflicting an ugly wound from which the blood flowed in profusion.1

This quote does not detail the desperate defense of embattled soldiers nor of lucky settlers beating back an attack by marauding Indians. This graphic description is of a barring out in a Tennessee school in the 1840s. It is the schoolmaster, Mulberry Bangs, who is the “enemy” and students who are the defenders. The standard image, often depicted in American myth and art, of the cozy one-room schoolhouse with a benevolent teacher and attentive children, is belied by such ritualized acts of violence routinely visited upon them. In an annual rite expected by students, teachers, and the community, students barred the doors of the schoolhouse to the schoolmaster, demanding treats or holidays.

Barrings-out present a fascinating glimpse into early American childhood and the culture of children. They reflect the ancient rituals of charivari and carnival, the sixteenth century French “Abbeys of Misrule” or the “boy bishops” of England, in which the “world turned upside down” reflects youthful response to the existing social or political order.2 In these topsy-turvy actions, the peasants become the rulers, the boys become the bishops, and for a day are in control. Then, just as it ritualistically started, it ends on cue with the resumption of the social order. So, like the charivari, after barring out their master and getting their holiday demands met, the world returns to normal and the boys [End Page 129] quietly return to school. “The master’s authority is recognized as legitimate—his instructions valued; the boys, late successful insurgents, have voluntarily returned to their allegiance.”3 But in turning the world upside down, these schoolchildren are also part of a larger sociocultural phenomenon, one that plays out not only against the backdrop of a Christmas fete or frolic, but also one that has the undertones of the spirit of individualism, popular sovereignty, and an honor code that marked their cultural heritage.

What exactly was a barring out? In Georgia Scenes, Augustus Longstreet described a typical barring out in the 1790s by the boys of a Georgia schoolhouse. Arriving early at the schoolhouse, the master discovered it heavily barricaded by the boys. “What does all this mean?” the master asks, knowing full well the answer. “Why . . . the boys have turned you out because you have refused to give them an Easter holiday,” replies a bystander. “Oh,” returns the master, “that’s it, is it? Well, I’ll see whether their parents are to pay me for letting their children play when they please.” The master then attacks the school with a fence rail, puncturing a hole in the side of the school through which he storms in. In this instance, the plan was that the boys grab the master by the leg, carry him out, and wrestle with him in the yard until he finally yielded to their pleas for a “holyday.” After storming the defenses of the school and battering down the door, he was set upon by twelve or more boys. The master put up a fair fight and “he threw the children about in all directions and postures,” until, in a moment of high drama, he feigned exhaustion and capitulated to the boys’ demands. “By jingo, Pete Jones, Bill Smith and me can hold any Sinjin that ever trod Georgy grit,” a small seven-year-old cried at the conclusion, certainly as proud of his heroic deed as any knight of yore.4

Barring out was a common childhood ritual throughout America in the 1700s and early 1800s. A. H. Dunlevy reminds that “the barring out of the schoolmaster was rather common in the Northwest Territory.”5 And there are certainly other instances of barring out in Pennsylvania...


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pp. 129-150
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