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Thursday, October 31st, 2002


Sexual Revolution in Early America

by Richard Godbeer

Martyrs to Venus

A review by Alan Taylor

We usually think of colonial Americans as the passionless Puritans of Victorian stereotype. Mencken infamously described the Puritans as bedeviled by "the haunting, haunting fear that somewhere, someone may be happy." When asked to think of a colonial woman, we conjure up Hester Prynne, forced by Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel to wear a scarlet letter for her adultery. Hawthorne and Mencken (and many others) blamed the colonial past for repressions in their own day, while we recall their criticisms to congratulate ourselves for being oh so liberated and tolerant.

In his lively but uneven book, Richard Godbeer challenges our traditional stereotypes of colonial America by recovering a remarkable volume of sexual discussion and debate, prosecution and evasion. The diverse colonists were more than just the Puritans of New England, and not even they were as puritanical as we have imagined. In both their sexual excesses and anxieties, Godbeer's colonists seem surprisingly modern and accessible. Indeed, in their "complex and conflict-ridden sexual culture," Godbeer detects something very familiar: a "culture war, pitting different conceptions of sexual and marital etiquette against each other."

Godbeer discerns at least two sexual revolutions, and perhaps three, in early America. English colonization of New England began during the first revolution: a systematic drive by Puritan moral reformers to restrain the exuberance of Elizabethan England. In particular, the Puritans challenged an alternative folk tradition of marriage that Godbeer characterizes as "pragmatic" and "popular." Avoiding the bother and the expense of official marriage and divorce, the pragmatic held their own private, informal marriages, impromptu separations, and convenient remarriages. Frustrated by official indifference to moral enforcement in England, many Puritans emigrated to found colonies in New England that enforced their vision of a "Bible Commonwealth." But they were accompanied by sufficient numbers of moral reprobates to keep their new courts busy, and the Puritan revolution made little headway in the other, southern colonies, where ministers and magistrates were too few and far between to reform the popular tradition of loose and serial marriage.

Despite the limits of the Puritan revolution, Godbeer detects during the eighteenth century a second and radically different cultural revolution "toward a more individualistic marketplace of sexual desire and fulfillment, much to the horror of those who feared that greater personal freedom brought with it greater individual vulnerability." Premarital pregnancy surged and a declining proportion of young men married the women whom they seduced and impregnated. And at century's end, horrified moralists mounted what could be described as a third revolution: a new celebration of female morality and premarital chastity in the name of the virtue needed to sustain the new republic founded by the American Revolution.

It is tidy in concept, but Godbeer's tripartite scheme suffers from difficulties in the colonial evidence -- and from his book's division into episodic chapters that pursue divergent methods applied to different colonial regions to offer inconsistent conclusions about the big picture. To be fair, Godbeer rightly acknowledges that our own culture obsesses about sex in ways starkly alien to our colonial predecessors. They had no notion of "sexuality" -- a concept that we have promoted into the core of human identity. In Godbeer's words, the colonists "viewed sex not as a product of sexuality but as a component of spirituality, cultural identity, and social status." Lacking the categories of homosexual and heterosexual, the colonists thought instead in terms of various acts, some moral (vaginal sex within marriage) but most immoral (masturbation, fornication, adultery, sodomy, bestiality). They dreaded sodomy but characterized no one as fundamentally a sodomite, for they understood all sins as tempting everyone, even the most overtly godly. Such were the wages of universal, original sin in a culture immersed in the Bible rather than in Freud.

And yet Godbeer's entire project ultimately derives from our own anachronistic curiosity to find sex and sexuality in the past. No matter his attention to historical context, Godbeer ultimately serves our voyeurism by highlighting the sexual as a distinct realm of human activity. Indeed, his book succeeds most fully as a sprightly description of sexual escapades, offering colorful anecdotes that tease our conventional expectations of stuffy colonists. In one seventeenth-century New England town, Samuel Terry provocatively disrupted Sabbath services by standing before a church window "chafing his yard to provoke lust, even in sermon time." Another New England court case revealed fornication by Hannah Green with William Clark: "a noise affrighted him and made him run away and he then carried away in haste her petticoat instead of his britches." Although Godbeer means to discredit the simple stereotype of the repressed Puritan, he benefits from the persistence of that image in our minds, which affords us pleasure in discovering past sins.

Previous scholars also balked at examining colonial sex as its own subject, largely from a fear that the historical sources were insufficient. Godbeer forged ahead, "astonished by the richness of the material that survives on the subject." The problem is not that Godbeer lacks sources, but that they are trickier than he recognizes. Few diaries and letters survive from the colonial era, and fewer still offer frank admission to sexual thoughts and acts. Generalizing from those scatological few to the larger colonial population is problematic, to say the least. More often Godbeer must rely on hearsay accounts recorded by travelers who were keen to gather scandal at the expense of locales they disliked; and most often he depends on the recorded testimony in court cases brought by authorities or by aggrieved spouses seeking divorces. The travelers' accounts and court cases provide plenty of seamy and steamy quotations, but taking them at face value skews our picture of colonial sexuality toward the sensational. Finding what he seeks, Godbeer proves reluctant to doubt any of his sources. That he discovers more conflict than consensus, more deviance than conformity, seems inevitable given the nature of his sources -- and his disinterest in challenging them. Reading today's police log or tabloid newspaper certainly conveys a gritty reality denied in other genres, but it is a reality that needs to be kept in proportion when characterizing an entire society.

Wedded to an episodic and anecdotal approach, Godbeer balks at designing quantitative tests that might have given statistical precision and meaning to his broad assertions that suggest rampant illicit sex in the colonies. He observes that "it was not unusual for early Americans to pass from one cohabitational relationship to the next with scant regard for the formalities of divorce and remarriage." Does "not unusual" mean that most colonists did so? The statement is meaningless without some attempt to determine, for at least some sample of the population, the proportion of unofficial couples. Without statistical tests yoked to a research design, we have only a bunch of colorful stories that may or may not be representative of the culture.

When Godbeer does employ numbers, they appear out of context and vaguely convey a misleading sense of frequency. In his treatment of New England, for example, Godbeer reports that "more than a hundred women were convicted" for bearing children out of wedlock in Essex County between 1640 and 1685. About one hundred does not seem so many when divided by forty-five years, which indicates only 2.2 such cases per year -- in a county that had at least six thousand inhabitants by 1685. If Godbeer provided comparable data for out-of-wedlock births from seventeenth-century England -- or from contemporary America -- we would certainly conclude that the New England Puritans were remarkably successful at reducing premarital pregnancy. Two cases per year in a populous county only seems impressive when run against our stereotypical expectation that those repressed Puritans must have had no illicit sex.

In interpreting varying levels of prosecution Godbeer wants it both ways, regarding both a low level and a high level as evidence for rampant illicit sex. In seventeenth-century New England, where he finds numerous prosecutions for fornication and lewd speech, Godbeer concludes that the magistrates had their hands full coping with popular deviance and defiance. But in seventeenth-century Virginia, he regards the only known sodomy case as evidence that the overwhelmingly male population so regularly practiced sodomy, and so openly resented its sole prosecution, that the officials never again dared to enforce the law. Similarly, in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, where all moral prosecutions were inconveniently sparse, Godbeer insists that rampant promiscuity had worn down the authorities.

A specialist in the cultural history of seventeenth-century New England, Godbeer appears most comfortable and persuasive when analyzing particular episodes and texts drawn from that region and that century. In an especially impressive passage, Godbeer examines the case of Nicholas Sension of Windsor, Connecticut in 1677. Sension's prosecution for sodomy seems to confirm Puritan rigidity and intolerance, but Godbeer shows that for more than twenty preceding years Sension's neighbors had recognized and reproved his behavior without involving the court. Since Sension was otherwise a good neighbor and a prosperous farmer who acted only upon young men of lower status, his townsmen balked at prosecuting him for a crime that carried the death penalty. Despite abundant evidence for multiple acts, the jury convicted Sension only of the lesser charge of attempted sodomy, which brought a public whipping and shaming instead of hanging. His Puritan neighbors persistently saw Sension as a wayward but redeemable sinner no different from any other soul, rather than as a distinctive sodomite. Throughout the century, only two men suffered execution for sodomy in New England.

In addition to softening our image of Puritan moral enforcement, Godbeer ameliorates the Puritans' cold image by recovering their sexual passion within both marriage and spirituality. In this emphasis, he follows the lead of Edmund S. Morgan, who made a similar case in 1942. Puritan sermons, poetry, and love letters celebrated marital and procreative sex in part to discourage all sexuality before or outside marriage. Never people to do things by halves, the Puritans extolled foreplay and orgasm by husband and wife. In a guide to marriage, Reverend William Gouge preached that sex "must be performed with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully." Believing that conception depended upon a female orgasm, ministers urged every husband to attend to his wife's needs. Another marital guide instructed that "when the husband cometh into the wife's chamber, he must entertain her with all kind of dalliance, wanton behavior, and allurements to venery."

More striking still, the Puritans expressed their spirituality in erotic terms that transcended gender. Ministers exhorted Puritans, male and female, to submit to "an eternal love affair with Jesus Christ." One young man asked in his diary, "Will the Lord now again return and embrace me in the arms of his dearest love? Will he fall upon my neck and kiss me?" Since souls were equal and either without gender or vaguely female, Puritan men comfortably spoke of submitting as brides to ravishment by Christ as their spiritual bridegroom. Godbeer concludes that "Puritan sensibility offered a way to spiritualize sex and sexualize the spirit in a glorious and torrid symbiosis."

New England's relatively dense pattern of settlement, churches, and courts permitted close moral oversight by neighbors and by numerous ministers and magistrates. But in the southern colonies settlers were more dispersed, and their churches and courts were fewer and usually more distant. In the colonial South, most of the ordained clergy were Anglicans rather than Puritans, but they sought a similar sexual decorum confined within the bounds of official marriage. In touring the raw and far-flung southern settlements, however, the Anglican missionaries could only fume in righteous frustration at their moral impotence. In 1766, the hyperbolic Reverend Charles Woodmason insisted that "concubinage [was] general" and that men engaged in "swopping their wives as cattle." Worst of all, "they will commit the grossest enormities before my face and laugh at all admonition." One especially impertinent settler stole and donned Woodmason's clerical gown before slipping into bed with a loose woman -- who then brazenly circulated the story that Woodmason had ravished her.

Behaviors that Woodmason described as fornication, adultery, bigamy, and prostitution Godbeer characterizes as within the pragmatic and popular tradition of informal and serial marriage. Daunted by official fees and long, hard travel to the nearest minister, common settlers conducted their own marriage and separation ceremonies. Some even followed an old English custom of publicly selling a wife before witnesses to a new husband (apparently at her request) as a way to absolve the old husband of responsibility for her subsequent debts.

In the southern, middle portion of his book, Godbeer also turns, belatedly, to the relationship of sex to race. In contrast to other work on the history of sex and sexuality, Godbeer seems surprisingly disinterested in overtly applying a theory to organize his diverse evidence. Other colonial historians have focused on the construction of legal and customary barriers to sexual relations by white women with the racial other -- Indians and enslaved Africans -- as fundamental to a power structure that privileged white men. Rather than beginning there, or weaving that dimension into every chapter, as would befit the multiracial society of colonial America, Godbeer primarily examines sexuality within the white race, while confining discussion of interracial sex to two belated chapters about relations with Indians and about enslaved Africans. And in both of those chapters Godbeer offers relatively little about native or African concepts and patterns of sex, focusing instead on what white people wrote about, or did to, people of color.

Despite some rich sources, Godbeer's discussion of relations with Indians proves surprisingly insubstantial. He inconclusively concludes that "rape was doubtless more common and relations in general more contested than the extant sources, with all their biases, suggest; but we should not ignore evidence for more positive interactions. Indians and Englishmen could and sometimes did enjoy each other, love each other, and live together in peace." No doubt, but a historian should discern some larger pattern and some trend over time, with some explanation for both, rather than simply describe, in conditional terms, two extremes that accommodate every behavior in between -- which is to say, nothing at all.

Godbeer's treatment of interracial sex with Africans is clearer and more discerning, despite his heavy reliance for sources on the usual narrow set of suspects. The flamboyant diarists William Byrd of Virginia, John Gabriel Stedman of Surinam, and Thomas Thistlewood of Jamaica provide plenty of scatological color. Byrd famously "rogered" his wife on a billiard table and fondled "wenches" in the taverns, while praying for redemption in his study. Stedman reported that the jealous wife of a straying planter "put an end to the life of a young and beautiful Quodroon girl by the infernal means of plunging a red hot poker in her body, by those parts which decency forbids to mention." Between 1751 and 1764, Thistlewood recorded intercourse 1,774 times with at least 109 different slave women, mostly by compulsion. To his credit, Godbeer recognizes the exceptional nature of his few sources: "William Byrd may well have been unique in the extent to which he wrote about sex and the place that it occupied in his mental world." Godbeer also breaks important new ground by contrasting the attitudes of the elites in Virginia and Carolina over their exploitation of slave women. Where the Virginia planters, including Thomas Jefferson, tried (ultimately in vain) to keep their slave mistresses secret, the South Carolina elites more frankly celebrated or debated their own indulgence in enslaved bodies.

Godbeer finally examines, from three especially divergent angles, the sexual revolution that he detects in the eighteenth century. The southern and West Indian colonies vanish from the last third, and the previously neglected middle colonies (Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey) at last make a cameo appearance, while New England resumes its dominant role in his analysis.

In eighteenth-century New England, premarital sex and pregnancy surged. Previous historical interpretations generally followed the trope first advanced by evangelical critics during the religious revivals of the 1740s: that New England had declined from Puritan piety to wallow in immorality. More sensibly, Godbeer depicts a triumph of moral pragmatism over the impossible purity of the initial Puritan agenda. Unable to prevent young people from engaging in premarital sex, rural parents sensibly sought some influence and information by encouraging the practice of "bundling." Instead of seeking sex in barns or byways, young people slept together, "bundled" in the paternal home. Although ostensibly clothed and limited to fondling, the bundlers produced the surge in premarital pregnancy.

Some ministers fulminated against the practice, but in vain and to the detriment of their influence and careers. Parents defended bundling because it revealed whom their daughters slept with, so that in the event of pregnancy they could bring effective pressure for marriage or a financial settlement. "In order to ensure that unwed fathers were held accountable," Godbeer explains, "it was essential that people other than the lovers themselves know that they had been involved with each other." A growing number of young women got only a settlement for their out-of-wedlock baby, but they suffered surprisingly little damage to their reputations. Most of these young women quickly found another reputable man to marry them. Godbeer describes the new rules of the game "as a pragmatic accommodation between the greater sexual freedom that young people now enjoyed and the desire of parents to maintain protective surveillance over their children."

But then Godbeer gives his book a schizophrenic (and perhaps postmodern) turn by narrating the same developments in a far more ominous tone. That tone registers his shift away from the social records of the preceding chapter entirely into cultural analysis of a literary genre. The morally didactic essays and novels of the post-revolutionary era depicted premarital pregnancy as an indelible stain, fatal to a woman's reputation and prospects of marriage. Seduced, impregnated, and abandoned, a young woman should wither in depression and illness into an early grave rather than suffer a prolonged life of disgrace, poverty, and prostitution. Where literature had previously cast women as lusty temptresses, the new didacticism of the early republic depicted them as fundamentally more moral and vulnerable than men. This put the responsibility for chastity upon women, who should resist the sexual temptations that overwhelmed men. "Let the fair remember," preached one essayist, "that their peace, dignity, and character chiefly depend on themselves." Such moralizing implied, in Godbeer's words, "that women could seduce men into virtue, a reversal of earlier writings that portrayed womankind as luring male victims into vice." He concludes that the didactic literature "sought nothing less than the moral reconstruction of the individual, especially of women, in order to meet the challenges of an increasingly permissive society."

Although an effective summary of the post-revolutionary literature, Godbeer's account of such woe and ruin radically diverges from the social patterns that he previously described: pragmatic families readily handling premarital pregnancy with little or no damage to their daughters' reputations. Should we conclude, then, that the stories were mere romances, indulged in imagination without connection -- by either cause or effect -- to behavior? No, Godbeer insists, "the changing tone ... was not merely mimetic: the seduction genre appealed to Americans because it spoke to troubling issues with which they were all too familiar." Insignificant in one chapter, seduction and ruin become real, rampant, and troubling in the next.

To explain Americans' increasing anxiety over premarital sex, Godbeer invokes political ideology. The American Revolution spawned a republican ideology that stressed the role of women in raising virtuous children capable of self-sacrifice for the common good. The widespread seduction and abandonment of women therefore threatened the survival of the republic; preserving liberty required greater female morality and greater parental oversight.

In this explanatory reach to the American Revolution, Godbeer is in numerous company. Historians often credit every social and cultural change in the early republic to the effects of political revolution. The problem is that many of those changes also occurred in counterrevolutionary Great Britain. Eighteenth-century British writers invented, and then exported to America, the didactic literature of seduction and ruin. Indeed, the American popularity of British novels attests to the cultural limits of the American Revolution. Despite political independence, Americans remained culturally dependent on Britain as the literary metropolis that set the standards for manners and morals, particularly for the socially ambitious.

A more satisfactory explanation for the apparent coexistence of pragmatic courtship and literary hysteria is that they derived from, and spoke to, two different generations in two distinct social orbits: one mid-eighteenth-century, rural, and traditional; the other late-eighteenth-century, cosmopolitan, and upwardly mobile. The evidence for bundling and its management comes primarily from the country towns, where most of the population lived, while the moral didacticism later emerged in the newspapers, magazines, and novels that were printed in the seaports and the market towns of the interior. The print media spoke first and foremost to the middle-class Americans who longed to perfect the manners and the morality that comprised "gentility" -- a standard that derived from an idealized image of the British gentry as found in Jane Austen's novels.

This is not to say that the Revolution played no part. Prior to independence, only the colonial elite mastered gentility, but the Revolution democratized aspiration, as middle-class people, in country towns as well as seaport cities, cultivated their own pretensions to gentility. Then, at century's end, a didactic literature that began in the cities found growing numbers of country readers eager to escape their reputations as bumpkins. Regrettably, Godbeer does not return to the social data for premarital pregnancy at the close of the eighteenth century and the start of the nineteenth century to see if the didactic literature altered behavior in the countryside. Here his segregation of social and cultural methods in distinct chapters proves especially limiting. If he found that premarital pregnancies did not markedly decline in the era of didactic literature, perhaps those stories served as a vicarious outlet that vented anxieties in negative fantasies, thereby permitting young people to persist in premarital sex.

If Godbeer's final chapter is accurate, then the didactic essays and novels had little or no moderating effect on sexual behavior. This chapter depicts postrevolutionary Philadelphia as sin city: "casual sex, unmarried relationships, and adulterous affairs were commonplace." Citing an "unbridled atmosphere" and a "polyamorous culture," Godbeer adds that "venereal infection ran rampant among the city's residents, and out-of-wedlock pregnancies also became increasingly common." But he presents little evidence to support his lurid caricature of the city as a latter-day Babylon. No statistical analysis supports his claims for out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and, in his only cited figure for venereal disease, clerks detected it in "around ten per cent" of those admitted to Philadelphia's hospital for the poor during a single year (June 1800 to June 1801). One year and ten percent of the city's most marginal people, including prostitutes, is not meaningful evidence for an epidemic in the city as a whole for a generation. To document brazen abandon among Philadelphia's women, Godbeer notes that "11 of 14 women cited for bastardy by the Philadelphia Quaker meeting between 1760 and 1780 were expelled because they refused to acknowledge that they had sinned." But a rate of less than one such case per year in a city with a population in excess of 30,000 seems better evidence for moral decorum than for a "polyamorous culture."

Godbeer's best evidence comes from a handful of divorce cases. Adultery and bigamy ran "rampant," but he cites only two divorce cases and must explain the virtual absence of prosecution by authorities. Exaggerating Philadelphia's scale, he explains that "keeping track of marital histories in a large and chaotic metropolis was extremely challenging, so that bigamy and adulterous cohabitation seldom came to the courts' attention save in the context of divorce petitions." Similarly, two other divorce cases embolden Godbeer to declare that "some Philadelphia women evidently responded with enthusiasm to opportunities for nonmarital sex that came their way or actively sought pleasure in casual encounters and transient affairs." But should we characterize an entire city as promiscuous on the basis of charges hurled in a few divorce cases? Godbeer's response is circular: "not all allegations made by divorce petitioners and their supporters are necessarily reliable, but late eighteenth-century Philadelphians must have realized that claims of rampant promiscuity would appear only too credible." Only to those who took their reality from those divorce records.

Thus Godbeer proposes contradictory readings of sexual culture in late-eighteenth-century America. The inhabitants appear as pragmatists who shrewdly managed surging rates of premarital pregnancy; and then they are consumed with anxiety about premarital sex and persuaded to indoctrinate their daughters to defend the republic with their chastity. Alas, although largely published in Philadelphia, none of this literature apparently affected behavior in that moral sinkhole. The book's conflicting pictures of eighteenth-century culture owe something to its author's own ambivalence about social criticism of contemporary forms of sexuality.

Godbeer warns against our conservatives "who argue that only certain kinds of sexual relationships should be accorded cultural legitimacy" and who "often point to colonial society as an ideal from which modern Americans have degenerated." By recognizing colonial America as a highly contested sexual culture, we cannot indulge in it as a golden age of moral consensus from which to fulminate against modern sins. But Godbeer follows his warning about conservatism with a surprising expression of nostalgia for an organic and hierarchical colonial regime that he occasionally imagines preceded the libertarian sexual revolution that he sometimes finds in the later eighteenth century. Rather than celebrate the "permissive sexual climate" of his version of Philadelphia, Godbeer emphasizes the dark side: "as urban society became less organic and more individualistic, that left its members less protected as well as restricted by the corporate and hierarchic ties of the past."

For poor people in particular, "individual freedom must have been a lonely and frightening experience." He cites the sad fate of Con McCue, a young Irish immigrant admitted in 1794 into the Philadelphia almshouse with a fatal case of venereal disease. The almshouse clerk recorded McCue's demise as "a martyrdom to Venus." Godbeer observes, "There were many such martyrdoms during this period in Philadelphia, undergone by men and women whose intimate encounters bore deadly fruit." The Puritans could expect no better vindication than Godbeer's moralizing depiction of a lurid Philadelphia.

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