Today there is a lot of talk about family values and personal behaviors in our time and how they compare to the values and behaviors of the past. Many seem to think that the further back in time we travel the more moral and pure the people (our ancestors) were — that behavior is declining in the modern world but was perfect in the past. This got me to asking myself exactly how virtuous were our ancestors, how did they view marriage, and how did they live out their day-to-day family lives? I found an interesting and scholarly website at Campbell University, North Carolina, that helps to illuminate some of these questions.
First let’s look at the colonial family in New England, which was greatly influenced by Puritan religious concepts. The Puritan family was the basis of social control and was patriarchal in nature. Every person was expected to be a member of a household in which the head was responsible for monitoring the behavior of all members and wielding absolute authority over each member’s behavior with an iron fist. Single people, both men and women, were not allowed to live on their own but had to be a part of a “good” home. This could be either within their own family, or they would be “placed out” by the town magistrates.
Children were viewed as innately sinful, born into a sinful world, and the role of the parents was to “break the will” of the child. This actually led to laws that called for the execution of “stubborn and rebellious” children over the age of 16. There was some diversity in child rearing, however, and the upper classes in particular were more indulgent and less harsh with their children.
Marriage was viewed as a civil contract in Puritan New England and was not a religious contract. It was predominately a function of the magistrates. As such, divorce was permitted. Either the husband or wife could petition for a divorce, and, being a civil contract, they were relatively easy to get. But desertion by either the husband or wife was more common in Puritan society than divorce. Serial marriage was very common; the average length of a marriage was just 12 years due to the high mortality rates, especially of the wife in childbirth. Remarriage was fast — within days or weeks of the death of a spouse.
Love wasn’t always a factor in marriage. The patriarch of the family had the right to exercise a good deal of control over his children’s choice of a mate. He could determine which men could court his daughters and he could withhold his consent to a marriage. His greatest source of control over his children was giving or withdrawing his economic support. The father could determine how his money and property would be divided among his heirs after his death. This had a great influence on what choices the children made about where to live and whom to wed.
After the American Revolution, things changed somewhat. Just as the nation had revolted and become more democratic, so marriage went through similar changes. Love and personal choice replaced “marriage as a social ideal.” Companionship, reason, and cooperation were valued in a mate over the previous values of frugality and hard work. Mutual obligations based on affection replaced the absolute authority and dictatorship of the husband. (Don’t let this fool you, however, women still did not have anything near equality in the marriage.)
Child-rearing, too, changed after the American Revolution. Rather than sin-stained creatures whose wills must be broken and dominated, children were thought of as blank slates, who could be molded by their parents into having good character traits.
Next week will continue with New England colonial courting practices, cohabitation, illegitimacy, and a comparison of New England family life with that in the mid-Atlantic southern colonies during the same time period.