Children Of The Young Republic


There was an increasing tendency to regard children—these children whose future seemed so immensely promising—not as depraved inferiors but as immature human beings who should be given a chance to express themselves. The old formal precepts that had prepared colonial boys and girls for eternity gradually gave way to didactic tales about virtuous, thrifty, ambitious youngsters who invariably got ahead in life—or their opposites, who didn’t.

The stern standards of colonial child-training, with its emphasis on submission and self-denial, still had many supporters, even in the western settlements. But the frontier itself bred a toughness and independence in its children, which neither the fear of God nor New England parents could budge.

“As a child … I had unbounded confidence in myself,” remembered Henry Wright, who came from Connecticut to western New York in 1801. “I did feel … that I was competent to be a church, a priesthood, a government, an empire, in myself, and I never could see any good reason why any created being should exercise authority over me.”

When he was about ten, Henry was put in charge of one of the ornery cows—”a beautiful, finely formed beast she was, with white feet and lace, and wild, restless, fiery eyes.” Time after time she kicked him and the milk over, then ran off, jumping fences and bars to escape him. He always brought her back and got her milked, but the next day she might do the same thing. “My conflicts with that cow,” he says, “became a source of exciting pleasure to me.”

Though they were contemporaries and within six years of being the same age, much of Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s childhood was in striking contrast to Henry Wright’s. Part of the difference is accounted for by sex and personality: “The idea of having any will opposed to my parents,” Lydia wrote, “never entered my imagination.” And when her formal education came to an end, at the age of thirteen, they surprised her by allowing her to join a dancing class that had recently been organized in the town.

“At a period when the puritanical prejudices against [dancing] were still in force,” she wrote, “it may be thought strange that my father, with his high standing for piety, should have given it his sanction. But I was indulged in it, probably, from the suggestion of my mother. She reasoned that the exercise was healthful, and the accomplishment conducive to ease and courtesy of manner.” The fact of the matter was, children all over the Republic were being encouraged to go out and meet life, to get ahead, to be precocious.

Lydia Huntley’s upbringing comes close to the average: restrained, yet full of such innocent pleasures as dancing class; choir singing; reading aloud from “instructive books”; walks after tea in summer, or “a short sail on the quiet Yantic”; evening visits in the fall, when checkers and draughts, “apples and nuts … were the accustomed and adequate entertainment”; in winter, late-afternoon sleigh rides out to some reputable country tavern, where a group of boys and girls (”composed of the sons and daughters of neighbors”) would dance a few quadrilles and “cotillons,” then return.

After one of these sleighing parties, Lydia’s girl friend dashed off a note to her which is redolent with the sentimentality and hearty innocence of the age:

Dearest L:                                                                                                 Did not we have a good time last evening? Such a moon! We might have seen to work muslin by it … I declare it was romantic. The horses enjoyed themselves too. I know they did by their prancing and seeming to keep time to the bells. I suppose they thought we got up that music for their especial merriment and behoof … We succeeded quite well with our new cotillon, did not we? … Brother thinks it would be a pleasant variety to sing a song or two just before leaving. What do you say? Would not it look too frolicsome? … Mother thinks he improves mightily, and grows more of a gentleman in the house since he has gone with us nice ladies to these sleighing parties. So she promises we shall go again. That’s just right. To please her, and be so happy, and grow wiser too, all at the same time, is a very grand business. So good-bye for the present. Be a good girl, and mind every word your mother says.

B. Nevins

In 1856, almost exactly fifty years after the frolic described by “B. Nevins,” Caroline and Anna Richards were invited on a similar sleigh ride. Caroline was thirteen, but Anna was only ten and their grandparents, with whom they lived in the village of Canandaigua, New York, told them they could not go. They asked if they could spend the evening with a school friend instead. Their grandfather said yes, ”… so we went down there and when the load stopped for her, we went too.” The next day, Grandfather found out about it: