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Children Of The Young Republic

April 2024
10min read

As the nation changed, so did its theories about raising youngsters. Prayed over or let run wild, and always the despair of foreign visitors, they have usually survived

A mid-nineteerith century English lady named Mrs. Mary Duncan complained that American parents not only encouraged their children to show off to guests, but if the little dears didn’t happen to be home during your visit you’d have to go through the ridiculous business of looking at their portraits.

In a hitherto unexhibited trove of 160 American folk paintings collected by the late Mr. and Mrs. William F. Gunn of Newton, Massachusetts, and recently acquired by the New York State Historical Association, there were found to be no less than forty children’s portraits of the sort that Mrs. Duncan must have been trapped into making polite British noises about. These are not sons and daughters of the rich, painted by fashionable artists trained in European traditions, but boys and girls of the village and town. They were portrayed, before the age of popular photography, by men who might have been apprenticed as sign painters, wall stencilers, or perhaps tinware decorators. Their “likenesses,” for which one itinerant artist charged as little as $2.92 (including frame and glass), portray average young Americans of the early eighteen hundreds, dressed up in their Sunday best.

Looking at them today—at their docile, rather earnest expressions and stiff little bodies—it is difficult to imagine that, as Felix de Beaujour wrote in 1814, they “sparkle in the streets of American towns like field flowers in the springtime.” Even Mrs. Duncan was impressed by the precociousncss of American children. “Little creatures feed themselves very neatly,” she reported, “and are trusted with cups of glass and china, which they grasp firmly, carry about the room carefully, and deposit, unbroken at an age when, in our country mamma or nurse would be rushing after them to save the vessels from destruction.”

Other foreign observers took a less kindly view of what they called “the assumption, self-assertion, and conceit” of children in the United States. “As soon as he can sit at table [the American child] chooses his own food, and as soon as he can speak argues with his parents on the propriety or impropriety of their directions,” sniffed one Englishwoman. J. V. Hecke, a German visitor during the 1820’s, frequently saw girls “in convulsive anger at their parents,” and boys “in quarrel with old people pick up stones, and threaten to fling them at the head of the old man that wanted to punish them.” John Bristed summed it all up as early as 1818: “Parents have no command over their children.”

They are “too anxious to make money and too apt to spoil their children,” agreed Edward Strutt Abdy in the 1830’s. “The boys,” he added, “are much more spoiled than the girls.” When Eneas Mackenzie risked tea with an American family around 1820, he found that “the children’s faces were dirty, their hair uncombed, their disposition evidently untaught, and all the members of the family, from the boy of six years of age up to the owner (I was going to say master) of the house, appeared independent of each other.”

This thread of amazement runs through practically all accounts of life in the United States written by foreign visitors between 1800 and 1860. Whether with the delighted approval of an occasional Harriet Martineau, the insight of Tocqueville, or the smug disdain of most of the others, each traveler recognized a distinctly American attitude toward children: a curious combination of parental overindulgence and neglect that encouraged both competence and willfulness in the young.

What, in fact, these cultivated Europeans were witnessing was a remarkable revolution in the status of the child in America.

Throughout most of the colonial period, children had been considered congenitally wicked: creatures “born with ungovernable passions which must be checked and depraved wills which must be broken.” The stain of Original Sin defiled the soul of each infant. Salvation, rare in any case, depended on the parents’ strict “training in the ways of the Lord,” and on the child’s absolute obedience.

Harsh as this pattern of piety and rigid patriarchy seems, it suited the poverty of the times. Very few colonial families were wealthy. For most, social betterment meant constant toil, often on land that had been farmed out or wasn’t much good in the first place. Boys were bound to their fathers till the age of twenty-one, girls until sixteen or eighteen or, in some instances, until marriage. In the world they could expect to enter as adults, capital was scarce and opportunity limited. No wonder the headstrong child’s will was “broken by persistent and adequate punishment,” and all were taught that it was a sin to find fault with their meals, their apparel, or their lot in life.

As the colonies got beyond the struggle for mere survival, attitudes slowly changed. By 1750 the doctrine of damnation for the many, election for the few, had lost some of its acceptance; a utilitarian, live-and-let-live attitude had entered American thought; puritanical family discipline was on the wane. But it wasn’t until after the Revolution, when the vastness and availability of the continent became more and more apparent, that what has been called “the emancipation of childhood” really got under way.

There was an increasing tendency to regard children—these children whose future seemed so immensely promising—not as depraved inferiors but as immature human beings who should be given a chance to express themselves. The old formal precepts that had prepared colonial boys and girls for eternity gradually gave way to didactic tales about virtuous, thrifty, ambitious youngsters who invariably got ahead in life—or their opposites, who didn’t.

The stern standards of colonial child-training, with its emphasis on submission and self-denial, still had many supporters, even in the western settlements. But the frontier itself bred a toughness and independence in its children, which neither the fear of God nor New England parents could budge.

“As a child … I had unbounded confidence in myself,” remembered Henry Wright, who came from Connecticut to western New York in 1801. “I did feel … that I was competent to be a church, a priesthood, a government, an empire, in myself, and I never could see any good reason why any created being should exercise authority over me.”

When he was about ten, Henry was put in charge of one of the ornery cows—”a beautiful, finely formed beast she was, with white feet and lace, and wild, restless, fiery eyes.” Time after time she kicked him and the milk over, then ran off, jumping fences and bars to escape him. He always brought her back and got her milked, but the next day she might do the same thing. “My conflicts with that cow,” he says, “became a source of exciting pleasure to me.”

Though they were contemporaries and within six years of being the same age, much of Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s childhood was in striking contrast to Henry Wright’s. Part of the difference is accounted for by sex and personality: “The idea of having any will opposed to my parents,” Lydia wrote, “never entered my imagination.” And when her formal education came to an end, at the age of thirteen, they surprised her by allowing her to join a dancing class that had recently been organized in the town.

“At a period when the puritanical prejudices against [dancing] were still in force,” she wrote, “it may be thought strange that my father, with his high standing for piety, should have given it his sanction. But I was indulged in it, probably, from the suggestion of my mother. She reasoned that the exercise was healthful, and the accomplishment conducive to ease and courtesy of manner.” The fact of the matter was, children all over the Republic were being encouraged to go out and meet life, to get ahead, to be precocious.

Lydia Huntley’s upbringing comes close to the average: restrained, yet full of such innocent pleasures as dancing class; choir singing; reading aloud from “instructive books”; walks after tea in summer, or “a short sail on the quiet Yantic”; evening visits in the fall, when checkers and draughts, “apples and nuts … were the accustomed and adequate entertainment”; in winter, late-afternoon sleigh rides out to some reputable country tavern, where a group of boys and girls (”composed of the sons and daughters of neighbors”) would dance a few quadrilles and “cotillons,” then return.

After one of these sleighing parties, Lydia’s girl friend dashed off a note to her which is redolent with the sentimentality and hearty innocence of the age:

Dearest L:                                                                                                 Did not we have a good time last evening? Such a moon! We might have seen to work muslin by it … I declare it was romantic. The horses enjoyed themselves too. I know they did by their prancing and seeming to keep time to the bells. I suppose they thought we got up that music for their especial merriment and behoof … We succeeded quite well with our new cotillon, did not we? … Brother thinks it would be a pleasant variety to sing a song or two just before leaving. What do you say? Would not it look too frolicsome? … Mother thinks he improves mightily, and grows more of a gentleman in the house since he has gone with us nice ladies to these sleighing parties. So she promises we shall go again. That’s just right. To please her, and be so happy, and grow wiser too, all at the same time, is a very grand business. So good-bye for the present. Be a good girl, and mind every word your mother says.

B. Nevins

In 1856, almost exactly fifty years after the frolic described by “B. Nevins,” Caroline and Anna Richards were invited on a similar sleigh ride. Caroline was thirteen, but Anna was only ten and their grandparents, with whom they lived in the village of Canandaigua, New York, told them they could not go. They asked if they could spend the evening with a school friend instead. Their grandfather said yes, ”… so we went down there and when the load stopped for her, we went too.” The next day, Grandfather found out about it:

We knew how it was when we got home from school, because they acted so sober, and, after a while, Grandmother talked with us about it. We told her we were sorry and we did not have a bit [of a] good time and would never do it again. When she prayed with us the next morning, as she always does before we go to school, she said, “Prepare us, Lord, for what thou art preparing for us,” and it seemed as though she was discouraged, but she said she forgave us.

Caroline, and especially Anna, were constantly being mischievous (“Anna tied her shoe strings in hard knots so she could sit up later”), and more often than not their grandmother knew exactly what was going on. Once someone asked Anna whether the old lady still retained all her faculties; “Yes, indeed,” she said, “to an alarming degree.” When Grandmother heard that Anna had played hookey and told her she hoped she would never let anyone bring such a report again, “Anna said she would not, if she could possibly help it!” While Mr. Adams, a Boston relative and the head of Adams’ Express Company, was visiting, Anna asked what Eve was made for; when no one could answer, she told them all: “For Adams’ express company.”

Overheard by a critical visitor from abroad, these remarks on the part of a young child might have sounded like downright insolence. Yet her grandparents not only tolerated it in Anna, they rather liked it. “He has the queerest voice and stops off between his words,” Caroline wrote of the minister they had all just heard one Sunday. “When we got home Anna [nine at the time] said she would show us how he preached and she described what he had said about a sailor in time of war. She said, ‘A ball came—and struck him there—another ball came—and struck him there—he raised his faithful sword—and went on—to victory or death.’ ”

“I expected Grandfather would reprove her,” Caroline adds, “but he just smiled a queer sort of smile and Grandmother put her handkerchief up to her face, as she always does when she is amused about anything.”

What emerges from Caroline’s diary and others of this later period is a new sense of informality between parents and children, and at the same time a growing separation of their two worlds. Anna adores and makes fun of both her grandparents; Caroline calls Grandmother her “dear little lady” and thinks “she is a perfect angel even if she does seem rather strict sometimes.” But the real center of Caroline’s and Anna’s life is in school, in Sunday school, in the myriad activities outside their home.


Home was where you lived, but you didn’t learn about life there. The world was moving so fast that, while the older generation still could and did teach values to the young, it had less and less to pass on of a practical nature. Henry Wright learned all he needed to know right on his father’s farm. At six, Lydia Huntley was helping her grandmother to make her father’s shirts; she was encouraged, “when in the parlor with older people … to imitate their employments.” Caroline and Anna did a certain amount of light work about the house—threading needles before going to school or straightening their things, getting their room ready to be cleaned—but it was the merest token.

Since they were allowed their own pursuits, were judged more and more by standards adjusted to suit their age group, and were unexposed either to the neglect or to the arbitrary parental wrath of an earlier day, it is hardly surprising that the Richards girls and other mid-nineteenth-century children occasionally considered grownups rather superfluous:

Anna and I were chattering like two magpies today [reads Caroline’s entry for Christmas, 1857] and a man came in to talk to Grandfather on business. He told us in an undertone that children should be seen and not heard. After he had gone I saw Anna watching him a long time till he was only a speck in the distance and I asked her what she was doing. She said she was doing it because it was a sign if you watched persons out of sight you would never see them again.

This facetious attitude toward adults would have puzzled Henry Wright, whose father ”… allowed but little familiarity … a look, or a tap of his foot on the floor, was enough to guide us and keep us quiet.” Probably both he and Lydia would have been amazed, and delighted, by Anna’s Sunday satires. “One thing can never be effaced from my memory,” Wright says, “the burden of the Sabbath.” Lydia was overcome by “a sensation of weariness” as she replied to her father’s Sunday grilling on the catechism.

It would be false to imply that, by 1850, the old fundamental principles of Christianity no longer formed the basis for the American child’s religious life, or that the Christian duty of employing time to best advantage wasn’t still one of the first lessons taught the young. It would be still more wrong to assume that fathers had lost their whip hand. What “Paw” said still went, even if he didn’t say as much and said it differently. The concentration of authority that made the family such a strong unit lasted, fundamentally unchanged, at least until the middle of the century.

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.

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