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The Emergence of the 'Republican' Family

Digital History TOPIC ID 77

During the eighteenth century, New England fathers found themselves less able to influence their sons' choice of occupation, when or whom their children would marry, and their offsprings' sexual behavior. By mid-century, sons were moving further away from the parental home, fewer daughters were marrying in birth order, and rates or illegitimacy and pregnancy prior to marriage were rising markedly.

One force for change was ideological. The mid- and late-eighteenth century saw repeated attacks upon patriarchal authority by such popular writers as Samuel Richardson, Oliver Goldsmith, and Henry Fielding, who rejected the idea that a father should dictate a child's career or choice of a marriage partner and who argued that love and affection were superior to physical force in rearing children and that women were more effective than men in inducing children's obedience. Economic shifts further contributed to an erosion of paternal authority. Rapid population growth, which resulted in plots too small to be farmed viably, weakened paternal control over inheritance. New opportunities for nonagricultural work allowed many children to marry earlier than in the past.

By the early nineteenth century, a new kind of urban middle class family had begun to emerge as the workplace moved some distance from the household and as many of married women's productive tasks were assumed by unmarried women working in factories. A new pattern of marriage arose, based primarily on companionship and affection; a new division of domestic roles appeared, which assigned the wife to care full-time for her children and to maintain the home; a new conception of childhood arose that looked at children not as little adults, but as special creatures who needed attention, love, and time to mature. Spouses began to display affection more openly, calling each other 'honey' or 'dear.' Parents began to keep their children home longer than in the past. By the mid-nineteenth century, a new emphasis on family privacy could be seen in the expulsion of apprentices from the middle-class home, the increasing separation of servants from the family, and the rise of the family vacation had appeared as well as such family-oriented celebrations as the birthday party and decorating the Christmas tree.

The new urban middle-class was based on a strict segregation of sexual spheres, on intense mother-child bonds, and on the idea that children needed to be protected from the corruptions of the outside world. Even at its inception, however, this new family form was beset by certain latent tensions. One source of tension involved the paternal role, which was becoming more psychologically separate from his family. Although fathers thought of themselves as breadwinners and household heads, and their wives and children as their dependents, in fact men's connection to their family was becoming essentially economic. They might serve as disciplinarian of last resort, but mothers replaced fathers as primary parent.

Another contradiction involved women's domestic roles. In their youth, women received an unprecedented degree of freedom; increasing numbers attended school and worked, at least temporarily, outside a family unit. After marriage, however, women were expected to sacrifice their individuality for their family' sake. In a society that attached increasing value to individualism and equality, the expectation that women should subordinate themselves to their husbands and children was a source of latent tension. Women's subordinate status might be cloaked with an ideology of separate spheres and true womanhood, but the contradiction with the ideal of equality remained. A third contradiction involved the status of children, who remained home far longer than in the past, often into their late teens and twenties. The emerging ideal was a protected childhood, shielding children from knowledge of death, sex, and violence. While in theory families were training children for independence, in reality, children received fewer opportunities than in the past to express their growing maturity. The result was that the transition from childhood and youth to adulthood became more disjunctive and conflict-riven.

These latent contradictions were apparent in three striking developments: a sharp fall in the birth rate, a marked and steady rise in the divorce rate, and a heightened cultural awareness of domestic violence. The early nineteenth century saw the beginnings of a sharp fall in the birth rate. Instead of giving birth to seven to ten children, middle class mothers, by the end of the century, gave birth to only three. The reduction in birthrates did not depend on new technologies; rather, it reflected the view that women were not childbearing chattel and that children were no longer economic assets. An emerging ideology deemed children to be priceless, but the fact remained that the young now required greater parental investments in the form of education and other inputs.

During the early and mid-nineteenth century, the divorce rate also began to rise, as judicial divorce replaced legislative divorce and many states adopted permissive divorce statutes. If marriages were to rest on mutual affection, then it divorce had to serve as a safety valve from loveless and abusive marriages. In 1867, the country had 10,000 divorces, and the rate rose steadily: from per thousand marriages in 1870, to per thousand in 1880, to per thousand in 1890.

A growing awareness of wife beating and child abuse also occurred in the early nineteenth century, which may have reflected an actual increase in assaults and murders committed against blood relatives. As families became less subject to communal oversight, as traditional assumptions about patriarchal authority were challenged, and as an expanding market economy produced new kinds of stresses, the family could become an arena of explosive tension, conflict, and violence.

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