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The Emergence of the Republican Family
Digital History ID 236

Author:   William Ellery


Middle-class family roles underwent a profound change during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. During the colonial era, the family was conceived of as a patriarchal unit under the authority of the father. Childrearing manuals were addressed to fathers, not mothers. In cases of divorces, fathers were almost automatically awarded custody. When young men corresponded with their family from school or an apprenticeship, they addressed their letters to their father.

Many pieces of evidence contribute to an image of colonial patriarchy. Fathers had a legal right to determine which men could court their daughters and a legal responsibility to give or withhold consent to their children's marriages. Husbands generally addressed letters to their wives with condescending terms such as "Dear Child," while women addressed their husbands as "Mister" and signed their letters "your faithful and obedient Wife." A symbol of male dominance was the fact that the father sat in an arm chair while other family members sat on benches or stools.

Paternal authority in the colonial family rested on a father's control of land. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, changes in the economy altered men's family role. The home and the workplace grew increasingly distant. More and more, men left home each day to go to work, while their wives stayed home. Many middle-class women began to make child nurture and household management a self-conscious vocation, while men began to view themselves as economic providers. At the same time, the older idea of a patriarch controlling the details of his children's lives gave way to a very different ideal: of a father preparing his children for independence.

In the following letter, William Ellery (1727-1820), a signer of the Declaration of Independence from Rhode Island, offers paternal advice to his son who was attending an early private college-preparatory school, Washington Academy. Apparently a delightful man, Ellery combines affection and an occasional quirkiness in his letters to his son. It is noteworthy that a friend named his own son after Ellery. William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) became a leader of American Unitarianism and inspired many social reformers as well as a group of thinkers known as the American Transcendentalists.


Now is your time to lay a foundation for future usefulness. Time past cannot be recalled. Therefore, my son, exert yourself, and let not your hours run to waste, without improvement.... I do not mean that you should be always at your books; for, as the old proverb justly observes, all work and no play makes a dull boy. Exercise is necessary to health, and health gives vigor to the Soul, but exercise ought not to be pursued to the neglect of learning. Avoid card playing, it is worse than a useless amusement. It, besides being a waste of time, is too apt to produce jangling [nerves], and to sour the temper. Don't forget to read the Bible. You will find in that too much neglected book the best rules of living, and by an attention to it with the assistance of the Divine Spirit you will become wise unto everlasting Salvation.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: William Ellery to his son

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