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  • Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History by C. Dallett Hemphill
  • Vivian Bruce Conger (bio)

Siblings, Kinship, Patriarchy, Families, Family structure

Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History. By C. Dallett Hemphill. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 328. Cloth, $36.95.)

I write this review in sorrow and in joy. With Dallett Hemphill’s death we sadly lost a good friend and scholar, but I am privileged to write this review of Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History, which was recently released in paperback.

Hemphill argues that even though siblings have generally been overlooked by individuals and historians alike, “brothers and sisters have always played a key role in shaping history” (3). She presents an in-depth analysis of differing relationships between siblings across time and space. Sibling relationships were “the proving grounds” of momentous changes in American political, legal, social, and gendered cultures. While the author does not ignore the lives of African Americans and Native Americans, her study focuses primarily on the white middle class, the group that generally left behind the most sources. Hemphill researched an impressive array of family papers, letters, diaries, memoirs, advice literature, novels, children’s books, and paintings to explore siblings’ actual and prescribed lives north and south, east and west, urban and rural. This variety enabled her to examine how “different families and cultures used sibling relations to meet the challenges of life” (212).

According to the author, “the larger paradigm for family and society imported by early Euro-Americans was hierarchical, and thus the horizontal sibling relationship did not fit easily, while the more clearly unequal husband-wife and parent-child relations did” (20). This claim [End Page 169] lays the foundation for her exploration of the significance of relatively egalitarian sibling ties. In colonial and pre-Revolutionary America brothers and sisters voluntarily assisted one another in a number of ways that suggest genuine concern, not a prescribed hierarchical obligation. Brothers and sisters were “allies” who “expressed affection for each other and took pains to avoid contention” (41). These strong sibling relations helped brothers and sisters navigate often traumatic changes that eighteenth-century life brought.

During the age of revolution, sibling relationships fostered “accommodation to the political and cultural transformations” (67). Emotional sharing between sisters was not new (albeit it did become more intense as the ease of communication made maintaining the deep bonds easier and a proliferation of sentimental novels made the expression of emotions respected). With the rise of the sentimental family culture, Hemp-hill found in letters between brothers a greater display of emotion and bonding over their masculine roles as breadwinners, heads of households, military men, and political actors. Equally important is her finding of the increasingly intimate bonds and egalitarian relationships between brothers and sisters, relationships that provided a “safety valve” from the constraints of patriarchy (77).

Hemphill argues that sibling relationships changed with the need to adopt a new family order in the post-war era. “Once the Revolution undermined traditional patriarchy, . . . parents sought a new means of family” discipline (92). This was their dilemma: either re-create the patriarchal style reminiscent of monarchy—which they were loathe to do—or create a new democratic family—which they were not quite ready to do. The answer lay in focusing on gender and age differences in sibling relationships. On the one hand, they created a new hierarchy to replace the old. Older brothers and sisters advised, controlled, even disciplined younger siblings. On the other hand, the new age differentiation was more a matter of roles and responsibilities than of unequal status. Caretaking took precedence over power, affection over deference.

Significant changes in sibling relationships also accompanied the tumultuous political and economic transformations of the nineteenth century. Brothers and sisters helped each other navigate these turbulent waters in mutually supportive ways. This was a time when a clear family strategy for providing order in a democratizing society emerged, and gender differences became more important. In an era of a newly [End Page 170] inscribed women’s sphere, “horizontal and more egalitarian sibling relationship relieved the pressure of a woman’s new more vertical relations as harried wives and mothers” (124). The...


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