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The Secret Life Of A Developing Country (Ours)
Forget your conventional picture of America in 1810. In the first half of the nineteenth century, we were not at all the placid, straitlaced, white-picket-fence nation we imagine ourselves to have been. By looing at the patterns of everyday life as recorded by contemporary foreign and native observers of the young republic and by asking the questions that historians don't think to ask of another time—what were people really like? how did they greet one another in the street? how did they occupy their leisure time? what did they eat?—Jakc Larking brings us a portrait of another Americna, an America that was so different from both our conception of its past life and its present-day reality as to seem a foreign country.
September/October 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
Although there were important stirrings of sentiment against capital punishment, all American states continued to execute convicted murders before the mid-1840s. Public hangings never lost their drawing power. But a number of American public officials began to abandon the long-standing view of executions as instructive communal rituals. They saw the crowd’s holiday mood and eager participation as sharing too much in the condemned killer’s own brutality. Starting with Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts in the mid-1830s, several state legislatures voted to take executions away from the crowd, out of the public realm. Sheriffs began to carry out death sentences behind the walls of the jailyard, before a small assembly of representative onlookers. Other states clung much longer to tradition and continued public executions into the twentieth century.
Early-nineteenth-century Americans were more licentious than we ordinarily imagine them to be.
“On the 20th day of July” in 1830, Harriet Winter, a young woman working as a domestic in Joseph Dunham’s household in Brimfield, Massachusetts, “was gathering raspberries” in a field west of the house. “Near the close of day,” Charles Phelps, a farm laborer then living in the town, “came to the field where she was,” and in the gathering dusk they made love—and, Justice of the Peace Asa Lincoln added in his account, “it was the Sabbath.” American communities did not usually document their inhabitants’ amorous rendezvous, and Harriet’s tryst with Charles was a commonplace event in early-nineteenth-century America. It escaped historical oblivion because she was unlucky, less in becoming pregnant than in Charles’s refusal to marry her. Asa Lincoln did not approve of Sabbath evening indiscretions, but he was not pursuing Harriet for immorality. He was concerned instead with economic responsibility for the child. Thus he interrogated Harriet about the baby’s father—while she was in labor, as was I the long-customary practice—in order to force Charles to contribute to the maintenance of the child, who was going to be “born a bastard and chargeable to the town.”
Some foreign travelers found that the Americans they met were reluctant to admit that such things happened in the United States. They were remarkably straitlaced about sexual matters in public and eager to insist upon the “purity” of their manners. But to take such protestations at face value, the unusually candid Englishman Frederick Marryat thought, would be “to suppose that human nature is not the same everywhere.”
The well-organized birth and marriage records of a number of American communities reveal that in late-eighteenth-century America pregnancy was frequently the prelude to marriage. The proportion of brides who were pregnant at the time of their weddings had been rising since the late seventeenth century and peaked in the turbulent decades during and after the Revolution. In the 1780s and 1790s nearly one-third of rural New England’s brides were already with child. The frequency of sexual intercourse before marriage was surely higher, since some couples would have escaped early pregnancy. For many couples sexual relations were part of serious courtship. Premarital pregnancies in late-eighteenth-century Dedham, Massachusetts, observed the local historian Erastus Worthington in 1828, were occasioned by “the custom then prevalent of females admitting young men to their beds, who sought their company in marriage.”
Pregnancies usually simply accelerated a marriage that would have taken place in any case, but community and parental pressure worked strongly to assure it. Most rural communities simply accepted the “early” pregnancies that marked so many marriages, although in Hingham, Massachusetts, tax records suggest that the families of well-to-do brides were considerably less generous to couples who had had “early babies” than to those who had avoided pregnancy.
“Bundling very much abounds,” wrote the anonymous author of “A New Bundling Song,” still circulating in Boston in 1812, “in many parts in country towns.” Noah Webster’s first Dictionary of the American Language defined it as the custom that allowed couples “to sleep on the same bed without undressing”—with, a later commentator added, “the shared understanding that innocent endearments should not be exceeded.” Folklore and local tradition, from Maine south to New York, had American mothers tucking bundling couples into bed with special chastity-protecting garments for the young woman or a “bundling board” to separate them.
In actuality, if bundling had been intended to allow courting couples privacy and emotional intimacy but not sexual contact, it clearly failed. Couples may have begun with bundling, but as courtship advanced, they clearly pushed beyond its restraints, like the “bundling maid” in “A New Bundling Song” who would “sometimes say when she lies down/She can’t be cumbered with a gown.”
Young black men and women shared American whites’ freedom in courtship and sexuality and sometimes exceeded it. Echoing the cultural traditions of West Africa, and reflecting the fact that their marriages were not given legal status and security, slave communities were somewhat more tolerant and accepting of sex before marriage.