The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Research and edited, Jim Allison

Privacy and Autonomy in Traditional American Families

Family "autonomy" was not a value either for traditional Native American 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.

Slave families, of course, had no rights at all; slaves were a "species of property" Indentured servants and paupers also were denied parental rights and family autonomy. Since child custody was considered a male property right and children a form of chattel, women and men without property lacked a legal basis for asserting parental rights. Yet even propertied families were subject to extensive regulation. The Puritans, for example, gave masters of apprentices equal responsibilities and rights with parents in educating and disciplining the young. They also appointed special officials to oversee both parties. In 1745, the Massachusetts Assembly ordered that any child older than six who did not know the alphabet was to be removed to another family." 11

Church courts, civic leaders, and neighbors enforced a legislatively sanctioned household order that took precedence over the autonomy of any particular family. Authorities might intervene if they found the household head too severe or not strict enough. In Virginia, for example, both a master and his servant were ordered dunked in the local pond, she for being insubordinate and he for failing to restrain her. Conversely, the magistrates of Essex County fined one man forty shillings when neighbors reported that he had referred to his wife as his servant, despite the fact that she denied any dissatisfaction with his treatment. In each of these cases, no one in the family requested aid; the intervention was initiated by outside forces.12

During the Revolutionary era as well, Americans expected to be scrutinized and called to account by neighbors, church authorities, and local officials. Historian Nancy Cott's study of divorce records reveals that in the late eighteenth century, people nonchalantly entered what modern Americans would consider the most intimate, secluded arenas of their neighbors' lives.

In 1773, for example, Mary Angel and Abigail Galloway testified in an adultery case that they had caught sight through an open window of a man they knew "in the Act of Copulation" with a woman not his wife. By their own report, they matter-of-factly walked into the house "and after observing them some time...asked him if he was not Ashamed to act so when he had a Wife at home." When John Backus and Chloe Gleason sneaked away from their companions one evening in 1784 and were subsequently caught in bed together, the company told them to "get up or be puled [sic] out of bed." The pair obediently got dressed, and John "agreed to treat said Company for his misconduct." The reach of neighbors, church courts, and local authorities into what was only later to be defined as "private life" continued into the first decades of the nineteenth century." 13

During the Jacksonian period, white families gained considerable freedom from this kind of outside interference, but legal and economic trends ushered in a whole new set of processes for defining and controlling family life. What has changed since the early nineteenth century is not the extent of public regulation of family life but the formality of that regulation.

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. 11. Leslie Howard Owens, This Species of Property: Slave Life and Culture in the Old South (New York: Oxford, 1976); Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 78, 88, 100, 142, 148; Eli Zaretsky, "The Place of the Family in the Origins of the Welfare State," in Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions, ed. Barrie Thorne with Marilyn Yalom (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman, 1982), p. 197; John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (New York: Oxford, 1970), p. 183. 12. Morgan, The Puritan Family, p. 45; Julia Cherry Spruill, Women's Life and Work in the Southern Colonies (New York: Norton, 1972); Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982). 13. Nancy Cott, "Eighteenth-Century Family and Social Life Revealed in Massachusetts Divorce Records," in A Heritage of Her Own, ed. Nancy Cott and Elizabeth Pleck (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979), p. 110; Mary Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 24-43. SOURCE: The Writer's Guide, Everyday Life in Colonial America From 1607 - 1783. Dale Taylor. Weiter's Digest Books (1997) pp 125-127


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