Children Of The Young Republic

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Yet well before that, profound underlying conditions had begun to weaken the patriarchal family: the rapid development of machine industry, which weakened family life by long factory hours and gave women and children financial independence; the westward migration that swelled to enormous proportions in the 1830’s and 1840’s, scattering relatives, dispersing households, and developing in its wake an intense spirit of personal and political freedom; the gradual but steady urbanization and almost imperceptible secularization, which forced more and more once-familial responsibilities onto society and its institutions.

The most obvious symptoms of these complex social innovations were reported with blunt glee by foreigners like the Englishman John W. Oldmixon, who had come to kibitz on the sprawling young democracy: “Baby citizens are allowed to run wild as the Snake Indians and do whatever they please,” wrote Oldmixon. The Comte de St. Victor observed that a child of the lower classes quits his parents “almost like the animal does.” American children, Adam Gurowski noted, “make freely the choice of their intimacies, then of their church, of their politics, their husbands and wives.”

No doubt these European observers gave a more or less accurate picture of what they saw, but few seemed to realize the essential difference between nineteenth-century Europe and America: that children had to learn, not to know their place in the New World, but how to make it.

“Why need a child’s will be broken?” argued one perceptive American early in the century. “He will have use for it all.” He did a hundred and fifty years ago.

He still does.