Adulthood, Slavery, Suffrage, Gender, Marriage, Human rights
I imagine that most of us who teach about the early republic have invented tricks to help students ‘‘get’’ both the foreignness of that era and its profound connection to our own. Slavery seems to them, even in [End Page 505] the face of ongoing racism and racist violence, the most alien past. Evangelical religion, and its connection to movements for progressive social and moral change, seems quaint. And the notion that woman suffrage was ever seen as outrageous—impossible. I evoke a reaction to the early demand for woman suffrage by inviting responses to a demand that children be given the vote. This gets students worked up (in one happy moment, a student stamped her foot at me), and they launch some version of every argument ever made against women voting. Finally, they conclude, children are not adults, and that settles it.
Apparently, however, it does not. While historians are familiar with the idea of childhood as a historically shaped stage of life, we, like my students, tend to consider adulthood self-evident. I thought about this quite a bit as I read Corinne T. Field’s intriguing and beautifully written account of how leading nineteenth-century advocates of women’s and black rights—notably Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Frances Watkins Harper—drew on recently institutionalized notions of adulthood to argue for white women’s, black women’s, and black men’s capacity to be voters. Of course, the idea that only property-owning white men acquired the rights of full citizenship was not in itself new. But as those rights, and especially the right to vote, became separated from property ownership, chronological age assumed growing importance, and politicians struggled to define a legal moment when people could exercise particular rights. Adulthood itself, Field shows, was a contested political and legal, not biological, category, one that managed, through supposedly neutral measures, to rationalize the continued subordination of some groups to others. White men’s political dependence, like their dependence on their mothers, would be outgrown; the legal, economic, and personal dependence of black men and all women would not. Thus a new rhetoric of majority, increasingly specified for most (but far from all) purposes as age twenty-one, served both to grant rights to white men—and to infantilize, and deprive of those rights, everyone else.
At first glance this seemed a progressive step. Age, John Locke insisted, not inherited rank, made a man ‘‘free.’’ From the seemingly neutral assertion that ‘‘natural subjection was ‘temporary,’ ’’ age came to assume new importance in legal and political writings, and became an additional justification for the ‘‘natural’’ subjection of men over their households and their dependents (15). For both white women and for enslaved and free African Americans, forms of dependence limited their ability to become full-fledged adults; as the earliest feminist thinkers [End Page 506] argued, it was women’s independence prior to marriage that was temporary. Ironically, ‘‘as age twenty-one became more important,’’ Field argues, ‘‘it also became more gender-specific, marking out a universal transition to personal and political liberty for [white] boys but having little relevance for girls’’ (40).
As age came to define white men’s maturity and capacity, it was also, perhaps inevitably, appropriated by those excluded from its promises— people who had reached the age of twenty-one, but were not granted the capacity for independence that came with it. In the words of people ranging from Mary Wollstonecraft to Abigail Adams to Maria Stewart to David Walker, Field examines the objections to the somewhat circular idea that age itself was linked to ‘‘capacity’’ only for white men and that white women and all African Americans effectively remained children. Increasingly, white and black activists, in conversation and debate with one another, argued that this was at the root of insidious social hierarchies. By focusing on adulthood, activists stressed individual development, maturity itself—rather...