The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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EARLY AMERICA SEX, MARRIAGE, CHILDREN, GAYS, LESBIANS, BOYS AS GIRLS, ABORTION, BREECHING, FAMILY AND OTHER MYTHS. PART 9

Research and edited, Jim Allison


The Elusive Traditional Family

Whenever people propose that we go back to the traditional family, I always suggest that they pick a ballpark date for the family they have in mind. Once pinned down, they are invariably unwilling to accept the package deal that comes with their chosen model. Some people, for example, admire the discipline of colonial families, which were certainly not much troubled by divorce or fragmenting individualism. But colonial families were hardly stable: High mortality rates meant that the average length of marriage was less than a dozen years. One-third to one-half of all children lost at least one parent before the age of twenty-one; in the South, more than half of all children aged thirteen or under had lost at least one parent.1

While there are a few modern Americans who would like to return to the strict patriarchal authority of colonial days, in which disobedience by women and children was considered a small form of treason, these individuals would doubtless be horrified by other aspects of colonial families, such as their failure to protect children from knowledge of sexuality. Eighteenth-century spelling and grammar books routinely used fornication as an example of a four-syllable word, and preachers detailed sexual offenses in astonishingly explicit terms. Sexual conversations between men and women, even in front of children, were remarkably frank. It is worth contrasting this colonial candor to the climate in 1991, when the Department of Health and Human Services was forced to cancel a proposed survey of teenagers' sexual practices after some groups charged that such knowledge might "inadvertently" encourage more sex.2

NOTES 1. Philip Greven, Four Generations: Population, Land, and Family in Colonial Andover, Massachusetts (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970); Vivian Fox and Martin Quit, Loving, Parenting, and Dying: The Family Cycle in England and America, Past and Present (New York: Psychohistory Press, 1980), p. 401. 2. John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 108; Mary Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 33, 38-39; Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 24. SOURCE: The Way We Never Were American Families and the Nostalgia Trap Stephanie Coontz Basic Books, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers (1992) p 10

 


 

Miscellaneous Matters

Throughout the colonies, the bed and bedstead were the most expensive possessions, so many homes did not have them. Children were often present in bed with a copulating couple, or all were present in a common room on mattresses on the floor. Later, with the advent of modern ideals of privacy, this would change. SOURCE: The Writer's Guide, Everyday Life in Colonial America From 1607 - 1783. Dale Taylor. Weiter's Digest Books (1997) p. 125

 


 

The language of sex has not changed much. The biggest change is that words now considered obscene were in common use early and only gradually passed into the obscene. "Hump," "roger" and "fuck," especially the latter, were commonly found in early court records as slang terms for the sex act and had no negative connotations until sometime during the later periods. The penis was referred to by slang terms such as "rod" and "yard" (as in yardarm). SOURCE: The Writer's Guide, Everyday Life in Colonial America From 1607 - 1783. Dale Taylor. Weiter's Digest Books (1997) p. 125

 


 

Privacy and Autonomy in Traditional American Families

societies or for the European settlers who confronted them, although the limits on family privacy came from different sources in each case. Europeans were disappointed to find that Native American families had no private right to sell the land they lived on or worked and astonished to discover that "every man, woman, or child in Indian communities is allowed to enter any one's lodge, and even that of the chief of the nation, and eat when they are hungry." Despite this lack of privacy in property rights, public authority was far from absolute in Native American groups, since leaders had no way of coercing followers: Colonists remarked contemptuously that "the power of their chiefs is an empty sound." European explorers also were scandalized to find that Indian women had "the command of their own Bodies and may dispose of their Persons as they think fit; they being at liberty to do what they please." 10

Colonial Americans held almost antithetical notions of where private rights began and public authority ended. They gave political leaders the power of life and death over each subject and put women's bodies under the control of fathers or husbands, but they respected the property rights of private landowners and defended them against trespass by the lower classes. Nevertheless, colonial views on privacy and family autonomy were far removed from the notion that "a man's home is his castle." In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, city officials, social superiors, and prying neighbors regularly entered homes and told people whom to associate with, what to wear, and what to teach their children; families who did not comply were punished or forcibly separated

10. George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians, vol. 1 (New York: Dover, 1973), p. 122; James Adair, The History of the American Indians (New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1925), p. 428; Baron LaHontan, New Voyages to North America, vol. 2, ed. Reuben Thwaites (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1966), p. 463. SOURCE: The Way We Never Were American Families and the Nostalgia Trap Stephanie Coontz Basic Books, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers (1992) p 125

CONTINUE ON TO EARLY AMERICA SEX, MARRIAGE, CHILDREN, GAYS, LESBIANS, BOYS AS GIRLS, ABORTION, BREECHING, FAMILY AND OTHER MYTHS. PART 10

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