Children Of The Young Republic

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A mid-nineteerith century English lady named Mrs. Mary Duncan complained that American parents not only encouraged their children to show off to guests, but if the little dears didn’t happen to be home during your visit you’d have to go through the ridiculous business of looking at their portraits.

In a hitherto unexhibited trove of 160 American folk paintings collected by the late Mr. and Mrs. William F. Gunn of Newton, Massachusetts, and recently acquired by the New York State Historical Association, there were found to be no less than forty children’s portraits of the sort that Mrs. Duncan must have been trapped into making polite British noises about. These are not sons and daughters of the rich, painted by fashionable artists trained in European traditions, but boys and girls of the village and town. They were portrayed, before the age of popular photography, by men who might have been apprenticed as sign painters, wall stencilers, or perhaps tinware decorators. Their “likenesses,” for which one itinerant artist charged as little as $2.92 (including frame and glass), portray average young Americans of the early eighteen hundreds, dressed up in their Sunday best.

Looking at them today—at their docile, rather earnest expressions and stiff little bodies—it is difficult to imagine that, as Felix de Beaujour wrote in 1814, they “sparkle in the streets of American towns like field flowers in the springtime.” Even Mrs. Duncan was impressed by the precociousncss of American children. “Little creatures feed themselves very neatly,” she reported, “and are trusted with cups of glass and china, which they grasp firmly, carry about the room carefully, and deposit, unbroken at an age when, in our country mamma or nurse would be rushing after them to save the vessels from destruction.”

Other foreign observers took a less kindly view of what they called “the assumption, self-assertion, and conceit” of children in the United States. “As soon as he can sit at table [the American child] chooses his own food, and as soon as he can speak argues with his parents on the propriety or impropriety of their directions,” sniffed one Englishwoman. J. V. Hecke, a German visitor during the 1820’s, frequently saw girls “in convulsive anger at their parents,” and boys “in quarrel with old people pick up stones, and threaten to fling them at the head of the old man that wanted to punish them.” John Bristed summed it all up as early as 1818: “Parents have no command over their children.”

They are “too anxious to make money and too apt to spoil their children,” agreed Edward Strutt Abdy in the 1830’s. “The boys,” he added, “are much more spoiled than the girls.” When Eneas Mackenzie risked tea with an American family around 1820, he found that “the children’s faces were dirty, their hair uncombed, their disposition evidently untaught, and all the members of the family, from the boy of six years of age up to the owner (I was going to say master) of the house, appeared independent of each other.”

This thread of amazement runs through practically all accounts of life in the United States written by foreign visitors between 1800 and 1860. Whether with the delighted approval of an occasional Harriet Martineau, the insight of Tocqueville, or the smug disdain of most of the others, each traveler recognized a distinctly American attitude toward children: a curious combination of parental overindulgence and neglect that encouraged both competence and willfulness in the young.

What, in fact, these cultivated Europeans were witnessing was a remarkable revolution in the status of the child in America.

Throughout most of the colonial period, children had been considered congenitally wicked: creatures “born with ungovernable passions which must be checked and depraved wills which must be broken.” The stain of Original Sin defiled the soul of each infant. Salvation, rare in any case, depended on the parents’ strict “training in the ways of the Lord,” and on the child’s absolute obedience.

Harsh as this pattern of piety and rigid patriarchy seems, it suited the poverty of the times. Very few colonial families were wealthy. For most, social betterment meant constant toil, often on land that had been farmed out or wasn’t much good in the first place. Boys were bound to their fathers till the age of twenty-one, girls until sixteen or eighteen or, in some instances, until marriage. In the world they could expect to enter as adults, capital was scarce and opportunity limited. No wonder the headstrong child’s will was “broken by persistent and adequate punishment,” and all were taught that it was a sin to find fault with their meals, their apparel, or their lot in life.

As the colonies got beyond the struggle for mere survival, attitudes slowly changed. By 1750 the doctrine of damnation for the many, election for the few, had lost some of its acceptance; a utilitarian, live-and-let-live attitude had entered American thought; puritanical family discipline was on the wane. But it wasn’t until after the Revolution, when the vastness and availability of the continent became more and more apparent, that what has been called “the emancipation of childhood” really got under way.