Rethinking the Family in Early America

AHA Session 206
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Calvert Room (Omni Shoreham, East Lobby)
Lisa H. Wilson, Connecticut College
Lisa H. Wilson, Connecticut College

Session Abstract

This panel re-evaluates the diversity, dynamism, and significance of families in early America and the newly-formed United States. Once an integral part of the new social history of the 1960s and 1970s, family history relied on demography to better understand kinship structure and change over time. Since the 1980s, as historians have turned to different methodologies, the systematic study of families has become far less visible. The three papers on this panel, however, demonstrate that the family is reemerging as a vibrant subject of historical inquiry – and one that benefits tremendously from increased attention to race, ethnicity, region, nationality, and the law. Cassandra Berman’s paper considers the centrality of family life – and motherhood in particular – in the first United States overseas missionary encounters. She argues that domestic anxieties over maternity began to be shifted onto foreign and “heathen” peoples in the early nineteenth century, and that missionary representations of non-Christian families in popular print allowed Americans to explore alternatives to a rigid, idealized, Protestant vision of family life. In the process, she suggests, ethnicity and religion emerged as dominant considerations in defining both “good” and “bad” families in mainstream media. Holly White examines parental authority, children’s dependency, and age through the disjuncture among codified law, legal rulings, and individual family experiences in the early American republic. In her paper, she challenges decades of scholarship to demonstrate that families routinely negotiated legal definitions of age and autonomy in order to best serve family interests – and thus played an integral role in structuring American legal practice during a crucial period of development. Gloria Whiting shifts inquiry into enslaved families’ lives from the Southern plantation to the New England smallholding. In doing so, she demonstrates that “family” looked different to Northern slaves than it did to their Southern counterparts; they lived in greater intimacy with their white owners, and among a much smaller community of enslaved people. While this did present significant challenges, Whiting shows that Afro-New Englanders nevertheless forged meaningful and often enduring kinship ties, thereby broadening our understanding of agency and enslavement. Together, our panelists argue that the family cannot be studied as either a monolithic institution, or in isolation – that families were, in fact, continuously reshaped by politics, economy, colonial encounters, and forced labor. Further, by situating families within the context of early America, this panel helps illuminate the variety of roles that families themselves played in molding the legal, social, and cultural contours of a developing nation and its relationship with the wider world. As such, this panel will not only be of interest to early Americanists and historians of the family, but also to those studying childhood, youth, gender, slavery, and religion.
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