American Families/ first 2 weeks (with notes)

I’m taking a class on the history of American Families right now, and I really enjoy it. I like this paper and once I finally got started, I had a great time writing it and I’m really proud of it, so figured I’d post it up. When classes are in session and I’m taking 20 credits a quarter, it’s difficult to find time to write non-school related stuff.

Over the last two weeks in class, we looked at the familial structures of European immigrants, African immigrants, and Native Americans in the 17th and 18th centuries. In doing so, we looked at the roles of community and religion within marriage and family relationships, as well as the transition over two centuries from marriages formed for familial duty to those ideally based in affection. This shift in priority is seen in several areas.

Something important to keep in mind is how completely foreign the worldview of the 17th century actually is to the modern mind. An example of particular interest from our reading recounted a community member who caught a neighbor in the act of adultery by spying through a knothole in their cabin. Imagine someone doing that today — the question of adultery would almost be lost in outrage over the violation of privacy. At the time, however, it was perfectly acceptable for neighbors to spy through window in order to regulate behavior in the community and even to tattle to the authorities about what they saw with no fear of recrimination. Today such behavior is seen as a creepy imposition into private affairs, not to mention a crime.

Entwined with this community involvement was the concept of sin, as it was one’s  godly and neighborly duty to prevent community members from falling into temptation. A lot of Christian theology is contradictory, and I when I learn things like how the conception of sin has changed over the centuries, the existence of such contradictions make a lot more sense. Consider a comparison and contrast of “sin” in the 17th and 19th centuries. In the 17th century, man (and woman) was considered tainted by Adam’s infamous transgression, born steeped in sin. The natural state of man was fallen, and life was an everlasting struggle to resist temptation. Even children were not perceived as innocents in need of guidance, but as sinners in need of discipline — and everyone is a child of God.

Such a view meant any sinful behavior was seen as man reverting to his normal, sinful state. It was a regrettable lapse, but not an indication of individual character. The sinner would be punished — perhaps fined or whipped or both — and then the incident would be forgotten. Even if the sinner was caught in similar acts, it still would not be seen as a reflection of their individual moral fiber — such a person could still hold positions of respect and authority within the community.

By the 18th century, the conception of “sin” was already making the transition to a personal moral failing, and acts of sin or righteousness were being interpreted as indicative of the individual’s personal character. By the 19th century, conceptions of sin and purity were entirely viewed through the lenses of the individual moral character.

The earlier view of sin fit into the community involvement of personal affairs mentioned earlier, because such a view of sin meant it was the duty of each community member to keep an eye on their fellow man and help prevent them from succumbing to temptation. Concurrent with the perception of sin as a personal moral failing was the rise in individuality and familial isolation from the larger community.

The rise of individuality is another fascinating aspect — sin and community were all bound together, but so was a sort of lack of individualism, at least as we understand it today. This is another mindset so unfamiliar to the modern lens that it is actually difficult to find the words to try to explain it. A good analogy might be to imagine that the world was seen as a giant mechanical clock, and God was seen as the clockmaker, while heaven was an orderly clock-making workshop. In the workshop, each tool and material is set in its place so that God may find them when he needs them and utilize them for their designated tasks. Mirroring the shop itself, the clock is crafted according to a design where each cog and gear play  specific roles. If anything moves out of place, the clocks will no longer work correctly. Each part has a specific role to play. A gear cannot be a cog, and a cog cannot be a chime. Likewise, a peasant cannot be a merchant, and a merchant cannot be a nobleman. That would upset God’s design for society, and the world as a whole.

So in the view of the Euro-colonial families we studied, an orderly society depended on God’s design, and man’s inherently sinful nature meant it was necessary for the community to monitor and report on behaviors that were damaging to the orderly organization of society. Marriages were arranged based on advancing the interests of the family as a whole, and performed with an eye first to duty, second to God and community, and last to the possibility of eventual affection.

The Euro-centric view was also based on wealth and land ownership, which ultimately undermined the aforementioned worldview. As land inheritances in the colonies were divided and subdivided among the surviving offspring, more people had to move off into urban centers make their way apart from their families. This facilitated the shift from a domestic economy to a market economy, and the minimalization of patriarchal enforcement of family duty through the promise or denial of inheritance.

As society transitioned from a culture based in community and domestic economy to a culture based on the capitalist market economy and the right of all men to equality and the pursuit of happiness, the value of love within marriage and family shifted. Love became a priority in marriage, and even a source of capital for women in terms of what value they brought to a marriage. The problem with love is that it is a pretty unstable emotion, and a stable family was a central social institution. It was necessary for a shift in values to occur in order to stabilize marriage and family against the threat of the love match. A gendered view arose, which cast men and women as complementary opposites who needed marriage to become wholly complete.

This attitude is similar to modern gender stereotypes and attitudes about love, but social attitudes still were not similar enough to modern attitudes for a time traveler to comfortably fit into a house party. If anything, these values were more extreme in the nascent 19th century phase than they are today. For example, the gender essentialism which stereotyped women as biologically designed to be the nurturing household center was accompanied by a shift in the moral worldview which cast women as asexual, pure beings. As a result, expressions of affection and expressions of sexual interest were considered pretty much completely separate. That, in turn, led to expressions of affection toward friends and children that would read as sexual to modern sensibilities, but were seen as completely appropriate in the context of a society that drew a sharp divide between sex and love. It also meant that men who truly loved their wives were in a difficult spot, because the expression of such love and respect meant both remaining monogamous and denying their sexual urges.

So if you have ever wondered why modern stereotypes hold women to be both passionately illogical and ice-cold prudes in complete control of their sexuality, it can be attributed to this contradiction in 17th and 19th century attitudes toward sin in general and women in particular. The 17th century attitude saw all humans as fallen, the community as responsible in preventing sin, and women as not exempt from temptation — women were actually seen as more prone to fall to temptation, due to their role in Adam’s transgression. This is where the trope of the emotional, passionate, illogical woman who is ruled by her desires can be traced to, and the beginnings of the idea that men have more control over undesirable emotions.

The 19th century attitude toward sin had shifted to an individualistic morality, in which the individual was responsible for resisting temptation and women were designed by God to be the moral locus of the home and society. In this trope, women were viewed as the gatekeepers of sexual behavior, and men were often seen as animalistic sexual beings ruled by their basest desires. This is where the stereotype of the prudish ice-queen, in full control of her sexual desires, comes from — and thus two contradicting stereotypes are born: Men as logical beings who cannot control their sexual desires, and women as illogical beings in complete control of their sexuality.

This shift came about in large part by the transition to a market economy in the 19th century. As the market economy replaced the domestic economy of the 17th century, the production role of women and the domestic role of men were de-emphasized within the household.  In the domestic economy household and income were intertwined — family was business, and business was family. In the market economy the household and business spheres were separated. This was directly tied to the increased emphasis on expectations of male production and the financial value of free “women’s work.” For the middle class family, it was more cost-efficient to support a housewife who would raise the children, sew the clothing, and cook the meals than it was to outsource that work to the tutors, nannies, and other servants hired by the upper crust of society.

The working family, of course, could not afford to hire servants or keep a housewife at home. Their labor was ensured by the growing wealth inequalities precipitated by the shift to a market economy. In the early 17th century, a Black or White indentured servant could potentially work their way to freedom and even landownership. By the 18th century, Black indentured servants had become slaves, and White indentured servants were apprentices or hired help who could expect to one day be  shopowners or homeowners themselves.

With the transition into the market economy of the 19th century, it actually became more difficult to improve one’s financial situation throughout a lifetime, as the need for the middle and upper class to maintain a hold on an exploitable working class solidified. Instead of working class children entering an apprenticeship and learning a trade, they accompanied their parents to the factory or coal mine and worked alongside their parents to contribute to the family income. This was necessary, because the working class laborer was paid less than a living wage, so it was common for all members of the household to contribute to the income in whatever way possible. The exploitation of working class families also perpetuated class divisions across generations, because the hard physical aspect of working class labor meant such an employee had a shorter working lifespan (about 30 years) before injury and illness took their toll. Therefore, it was necessary for working class families to have more children in order to support the family as the adults became too disabled to work.

Another interesting aspect of the lectures over the past two weeks is the role Euro-centric views on marriage played in both the Indigenous cultures and in African-American relationships. In terms of Black Americans, we studied the role colonial legislation played in creating the racialized institution of slavery and, by extension, our modern understandings of race. We saw that, contrary to popular opinion, there were free Black colonists, as well as Black indentured servants, and that Black and White colonists married one another. Over time, such marriages were punished through legislative acts, and the rights of Black Americans were eroded in other ways, as well. In particular, contracts for indentured service were extended into slavery and the legal status of a child was tied to their mother’s legal status, thus ensuring generational enslavement. Eventually, Black Americans (even free Blacks) had fewer rights than White Americans. According to Birth of a White Nation, some of the first gun control laws in the United States were racially motivated, preventing Black colonists from owning or using firearms.

Despite the fact that enslaved Black Americans were denied the ability to make legal marriage contracts and were always at risk of losing family members to the auction block, they formed kinship relationships that paralleled the cultural norms of the Euro-American colonists. In defiance of the interference of slave owners who forced their slaves into relationships for breeding purposes, or who split up families in order break their spirits, enslaved Americans still formed affectionate relationships. In fact, one of the readings specifically noted that the kinship bonds formed by Black Americans during the period of American slavery was one of the most effective tools at a Plantation owners disposal, because tearing apart families was more psychologically scarring than any whipping.

Even Native Americans eventually transitioned their attitudes and experiences of family and marriage to fit the Euro-centric colonizing notions. For example, the Iroquois were a matrilineal society when the colonists initially arrived, but their social and family interactions changed due to extended contact with the Europeans. Part of this was the effect of population decimation caused by plagues and war, and part of it was because Europeans preferred to negotiate with men. After several generations, the 18th century Iroquois prophet Handsome Lake advised his people to take on certain Euro-centric behaviors, such as having couples move into individual homes instead of a matriarch-guided communal lodge. By adopting these and similar familial roles, the Iroquois adapted into the conquering Euro-colonial mindset and survived the tribal genocide that erased many other indigenous Americans.

Across all these cultures, a similar theme prevailed where the domestic economies reliant on prioritizing strongly neighborly bonds gave way to market-style economies in which the needs of the individual families outweighed the community as a whole. Based on class status and ethnicity, this shift in how families were prioritized in relation to community might have been more or less pronounced, but the shift occurred to some extent across all racial and social classes. This economic transition was accompanied by a refocusing of family values to prioritize affection and love in marriage, as well as an adjustment in social attitudes which viewed sin and morality as the responsibility of the individual and their family, rather than the community as a whole.

Note: I have already turned this in, and it was returned with some minor editorial feedback in the body of the paper. I made changes from my original paper based on my professor’s remarks in the body of the paper. Her accompanying remark, which I consider high praise indeed (considering the source), said:





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