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A History of Household Government in America

Author(s):Shammas, Carole
Reviewer(s):Main, Gloria L.

Published by EH.NET (March 2003)


Carole Shammas, A History of Household Government in America. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2002. xv + 232 pp. $55 (hardback), ISBN: 0-8139-2125-2; $19.50 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8139-2126-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gloria L. Main, Department of History, University of Colorado, Boulder.

This is an important book about families in American history not only because it synthesizes a vast literature, but also because it introduces an entirely new perspective on the subject by substituting the term “household” for the “family.” Doing so illuminates the crucial component of dependency in American family law. As Carole Shammas puts it so tersely, yet so meaningfully, the dependent household member is not free to leave. From colonial times until the Civil War, households in the United States consisted of a single head, usually a male aged 25 to 64, and all those living with him were his dependents including wife, children, widowed parents, other kin, apprentices, servants, and slaves. The head of the household was a master to whom all other members had to submit in exchange for his protection. Legal institutions brought over from England at the founding of the colonies defined all these dependent relationships (except slavery) and powerful religious traditions sanctified them.

Yet the transplantation of household institutions from the old world to the new could not proceed unaltered, as Shammas, professor of history at the University of Southern California, points out. The ocean barrier attenuated governmental power and the availability of land undercut the dependency of sons on their fathers. Except among the Puritans in New England and the Quakers of the Middle Colonies, neither church nor state could muster sufficient authority to command the obedience of dispersed settlers. Colonial governments therefore enhanced fathers’ powers over wives, children, apprentices and servants. The expansion of slavery and high marital fertility further extended that body of legal dependents, the total proportion of which reached some 80 percent of the colonial population compared to just 64 percent in Britain. Although Shammas emphasizes the need of colonial governments to have powerful masters and fathers in order to keep the peace, she finds little evidence that fathers effectively managed their children’s marriages, underscoring the rocky underpinnings of patriarchy where land was cheap and labor dear.

Despite high-flown rhetoric concerning liberty, Shammas finds nothing revolutionary about the American Revolution insofar as dependents were concerned. She is particularly effective in contrasting French reforms with those of the U.S. Yes, she acknowledges the decline of slavery in the North and the tweaking of inheritance laws in the South, but in both cases, masters and fathers found their hands strengthened rather than weakened. Slaves worked for their own emancipation, after all, and many northern owners simply sold their chattels to the South rather than see them gain their freedom. Changing the inheritance laws in the South did not alter practice, since fathers had always been remarkably free to dispose of their freehold property as they chose simply by writing a will. What needed to change, from most men’s point of view, was the ability of fathers-in-law to prevent a husband from managing his wife’s property in land and slaves through the use of entail, a perquisite that prevented the upwardly mobile male from achieving his business goals. Shammas demonstrates this wittily through fascinating case studies of the marriage alliances made by favorite Founding Fathers.

Republican ideology shored up family patriarchy only temporarily. Female literacy and religious evangelism in the nineteenth century encouraged an expansion of women’s rights that directly threatened male privilege. Relaxation of divorce laws enabled more women to exit their husband’s household, ending dependency. Likewise, the opening of the West and the expansion of wage work enabled children, servants and apprentices also to leave. Shammas argues that these reforms provoked a civil war within the household that rivaled its military counterpart in historical importance. But the post-Civil War era inaugurated a counter-attack on dependents’ rights through a continual redefinition of their legal status, designed to shelter them from the “pain and the privilege of full equality,” as Shammas dryly puts it (p.145). Of particular interest to the non-specialist is her description of the reaction of Protestant reformers in the North to the competition by Roman Catholic parochial schools and orphanages, staffed by many thousands of nuns and priests. Suddenly these liberals began attacking the institutionalizing of poor children as bad for the children and bad for the country. They thereby reversed direction on orphan care and argued for shipping the children of the urban poor to farm homes in the Midwest and West where hard work and a wholesome family environment would produce healthy, useful citizens. Shammas compares the orphan trains and their passengers to the epic trans-Atlantic journeys of indentured servants in colonial times. The richness of the book’s contents is further enhanced by her stunning use of census samples to demonstrate the long-term decline in household size since the end of slavery, the small scale of institutionalization in the nineteenth century, and the rise of households headed by single mothers.

As a writer, Shammas is feisty and often flip although occasionally her text loses clarity. A great strength of the book, however, is her ability to place American practice in an historical and international context. In sum, Carole Shammas has very usefully revisited an enormous and eclectic literature on “the family” extending from colonial times to nearly the present, and brings to bear critical census data on a scale we have never seen before. The book’s long-term perspective will make this work exceptionally valuable to specialists and non-specialists alike.

Gloria L. Main is the author of Peoples of a Spacious Land: Families and Cultures in Colonial New England (Harvard University Press, 2001), which won the Economic History Association’s Alice Hanson Jones in 2002.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII