Catholicism, Slavery, and Young Men on the Loose: Perceived Threats to Family in Antebellum America

AHA Session 80
Friday, January 6, 2017: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Governor's Square 14 (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Concourse Level)
Corinne Field, University of Virginia
Corinne Field, University of Virginia

Session Abstract

Throughout America’s history, family has been seen as the bedrock of the country’s moral underpinning, social foundation, and economic prosperity. There is a deep and rich vein of scholarship on the subject of the American family. Work covering the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, has examined progressive organizations such as the National League for the Protection of the Family that focused on limiting access to divorce (among other things), as well as the rhetoric of “race suicide” prompted by fear of falling white, native, Protestant birthrates.

This panel explores a different set of pressures in the early nineteenth century that were believed to be undermining the natural family and thus threatening to destroy the very basis of national well-being. Industrialization, westward expansion, and immigration, particularly from Ireland, contributed to rapidly changing public and private spheres. Some groups and individuals interpreted these changes as destroying marriage and family life, and by extension the country itself.

The papers proposed here will hopefully shed light on how individuals in the antebellum identified, confronted, and attempted to correct three different elements they believed were threatening to destroy the American family. Obviously, the subject of the American family is of enduring interest and relevance. Perceived threats to it continue to provoke apprehension, anxiety, and alarm. One can exchange “gay marriage” for “Catholicism” (or unattached young men or slavery) and still hear the echoes of old arguments. This panel will provide a historical perspective on this topic by examining how Americans 150 years ago understood the family and the dangers that threatened it.

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