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Division of Household Labor in Pre-Industrial America

The question of which member of a household performed each particular task of housework was, in pre-Industrial America, strictly determined according to gender, age, and social status.

Although some household tasks, such as milking cows, carrying water, and peeling potatoes, were shared by both men and women, many more jobs were considered either “men’s work” or “women’s work.” We might assume that men were expected to perform tasks requiring brute strength, while women did the jobs that required finesse, but this is not quite the case. In fact, this particular division of labor seems to have been determined more by custom, in a way that looks almost arbitrary today. For example, the making of cider and mead was a man’s job, while women made beer and wine. Men repaired the clothing that was made of leather, while women mended clothing made of fabric. Women had small side jobs to fill in the slow times of their day (sewing, spinning) and so did men (whittling, chopping wood). Men had jobs requiring physical strength (hauling wood), and so did women (doing laundry).

These customary rules were broken only in times of extreme necessity. Men and women were simply not well trained to do the jobs that belonged to the other gender. A man could, in time of need, make his own shirts, or a woman repair her own shoes without fear of disgrace, but he or she would inevitably do a clumsy job owing to the fact that these jobs required skills neither would have had the opportunity of developing.

Therefore, whenever possible, the more usual solution in case of emergency was to simply hire the work done by someone else of the appropriate gender. Since children began learning gender-appropriate tasks at a young age, it was extremely common to “loan” children to other households to perform the necessary work. Although there were always many young immigrant men and women who could well perform household labor, the easy availability of land meant that most of these eventually chose to set up their own households rather than go into service in the home of another. This was the “servant problem,” and it was partially solved by the institution of slavery. Still, slaves were expensive, while borrowing a young niece or nephew to help with childcare or harvesting cost only a little room and board. This custom allowed households to function smoothly while keeping the sexual division of labor intact.

When children, relatives or servants were present in a home to help with the housework, labor was divided not only according to gender, but age and class as well. It is important to remember that in most households, the housewife worked side-by-side with the lowliest slaves; only the extremely rich could afford to leave all the work to others. Hierarchies were maintained through the specific tasks performed by each member of the household. In general, children were expected to perform the tasks that required the least skill or organizational ability, such as fetching water and milking cows. Servants did the most physically arduous jobs, like scrubbing floors or doing laundry. Jobs which required creativity, judgment, experience and organization, like preparing meals or making clothes, were reserved for the housewife herself. Each task carried an implied social status.

Although housework has been traditionally considered “women’s work,” the daily reality of agrarian life meant that men as well as women were required to contribute to the efficient running of a household. The reciprocal nature of the contributions of each member of a household meant, among other things, that for most adults marriage was nearly indispensable, and certainly a very different institution than it would become as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

(Cowan 26-31)

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The Poem That Changed Washington’s Mind

Shortly after the Second Continental Congress elected George Washington commander-in-chief of the American military forces, he began a systematic policy for barring black men from military service.

Black soldiers had already distinguished themselves in the patriotic cause. But as a Southern white plantation owner, Washington was understandably alarmed at the idea of giving arms to black freedmen and slaves; the prospect of a slave uprising must have been ever before him. And while there is no record that the common white soldier in New England objected to serving alongside black soldiers, many of the upper-class officers believed it dishonorable to include blacks, whether slave or free.

So in November of 1775, Washington issued a general order that excluded all black men from enlisting.

Yet in December of the same year, he suddenly reversed his policy. He issued another order, allowing free black men the right to enlist in the army.

It was a surprising, rather contrary move, and a rare instance of George Washington changing his mind about anything, ever. The change was apparently not for practical reasons, such as needing more soldiers or the concern that blacks would join the English cause. In writing to John Hancock about his decision, Washington explained that it was due rather to the numbers of black soldiers who had approached him to complain of their dissatisfaction at being excluded.

For the first time in his life, Washington had responded in a fair way to an appeal from free black men. What happened to change his mind?

Shortly before Christmas of 1775, Washington received a letter in the mail at his headquarters in Cambridge. Enclosed in the letter were forty-two lines of elegant verse in flawless iambic pentameter. Full of classical allusions, the poem concluded:

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.”

The lines were written by the woman who was, at that time, the most famous slave in America.

Phillis Wheatley was also the first black person, and only the third American woman, to publish a book of poems. Born in Africa, she was purchased at around age six by the wife of a wealthy Boston tailor and merchant, Susannah Wheatley. While shopping for slaves at the dock, Mrs. Wheatley became captivated by the tiny, wretched child she saw there, dressed only in a scrap of carpet. She purchased the little girl, took her home, nursed her back to health, and gave her the name Phillis, after the name of the ship that had brought her to America.

Phillis had been intended for a household servant, but she soon showed signs of an uncommon intelligence, so the family’s teenaged daughter took it upon herself to teach the child to read and write. Soon she was learning Latin, and by the age of nine was occasionally acting as the family secretary. She began writing poetry just four years after her arrival in Boston, and at seventeen gained wide attention in the colonies for her elegiac poem on the death of George Whitefield. Three years later a collection of her poems was published in London.

Washington was extraordinarily moved upon receiving Wheatley’s letter and poem. So moved, in fact, that he broke the rules of social contact between masters and slaves. He wrote a letter back to her, inviting her to visit him in Cambridge.

It was shortly after meeting Phillis Wheatley that Washington made the extraordinary decision to allow blacks to enlist in his army.

(Wiencek 198-215)

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Benjamin Franklin’s Early Education

As the tenth son of a pious Puritan, Benjamin Franklin was to have studied for the ministry, as his father’s tithe to the Lord. At age 8 he was sent to Boston Latin School to prepare for enrollment at Harvard. He excelled in his studies at the school; yet his father changed his mind after a year, deciding against a formal education for young Benjamin. In his writings, Franklin claimed that the decision was due to the expense of the thing, but the more likely reason is that Josiah Franklin realized his skeptical, puckish, irreverent son was not suited to be a parson.

Historians have fantasized about what could have happened had Benjamin Franklin attended Harvard. Some have argued that a formal education would have removed those qualities that we find so attractive about Franklin: his spontaneity, freshness, irreverence, and his intuitive literary style. Yet this need not have happened; at the time Harvard administrators were struggling mightily against a student culture that was already marked by much drinking and partying, and of the thirty-nine students who would have made up Franklin’s class, less then half ended up as clergy.

In any case, Franklin’s father chose to allow the boy, who had already expressed a disgust at the family trade of tallow-rendering, to select his own trade. He took him on long walks through Boston to visit various types of craftsmen; the passing familiarity with different trades thus acquired helped form Franklin into a lifelong dabbler, which was of great use to him as an inventor.

Benjamin ended up becoming apprenticed, at age 12, to his older brother James, who had recently set up shop as a printer. The print trade was a natural fit for the boy, who was already a devoted reader. It gave him access to books, which he would sneak from various booksellers’ apprentices, borrowing them in the evening and often staying up all night to read them before smuggling them back to their places first thing in the morning. Books were his most important early influences; his childhood favorites included John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Plutarch’s Lives, Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good, and Daniel Defoe’s An Essay upon Projects.

The ideas formed under these early influences would continue to resurface throughout Franklin’s life:

  • From Bunyan’s book Franklin adopted a refreshingly sparse and clean prose style, as well as a firm belief in the concept of Progress, both individual and corporate, as the fruit of human struggle against adversity.
  • Plutarch’s work also contributed to this idea, and to Franklin’s gradual move away from Calvinism, with its emphasis on the essential depravity of man and the predestination of his soul, toward the deism that he would share with most of the great minds of the Enlightenment period.
  • From Mather’s tract Franklin took one of the aspects of Puritanism that he would retain throughout life, its focus on the performance of practical good works for the benefit of the community.
  • Along the same lines, Defoe’s book proposed ideas for many community projects of the type Franklin would later start up in Philadelphia: fire insurance associations, pension societies, welfare schemes and the like.

It was from Defoe that Franklin also obtained the progressive notion of equal education and rights for women; early experiences debating in favor of this idea convinced Franklin that a disputatious personal style was less likely to bring people around to his point of view than the convivial, Socratic approach which later became his trademark.

(Isaacson 18-27)

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Lincoln as Rebel

Lincoln was a rebel from the beginning. He had immense confidence in his own intellectual abilities, to the point of arrogance, so from childhood on he didn’t mind going against the grain. While his family was subsisting on what they could forage for and kill, he disdained hunting and even wrote a childhood treatise on animal rights. Surrounded by frontier piety, he was a skeptic and a deist. Surrounded by frontier tough-guyism, he didn’t drink, smoke, chew, gamble or swear.

To us today, Lincoln’s life embodies the American dream. But in autobiographical sketches he wrote in 1858 through 1860, he dismissed his childhood as tough, poor, uninteresting and even embarrassing. He said that his education in frontier one-room schoolhouses didn’t amount to so much as a year. HisĀ  father was illiterate and his birth mother was illegitimate. The family literally hacked a series of homesteads out of the wilderness; at eight years old Lincoln was compelled to use an axe to help his father clear forests and build poorly-chinked cabins for the family to live in. His father did not allow him to attend school and spurned him for his reading. Later Lincoln claimed, in reference to these years, that he had himself once been a slave. Although Lincoln was a forgiving and generous man, he never quite forgave his father, according to scholar William Freehling. Among his backwoods community, only his stepmother encouraged his intellectual pursuits.

He left his family at 21, as soon as he was legally allowed to, and drifted to New Salem, a rough riverfront town. He got a job as a clerk in a store, then spent his free time reading and studying. The six years in New Salem were probably his most formative, according to this author. He lived in poverty until he discovered a way out through politics and the law.

He loved to debate, which led him first to politics and then to the law. Freehling says, “As usual, Lincoln did things in reverse.” At 25 he was elected to the state legislature, then began studying law on his own. In 1837 he combined his two passions and managed to get the state capital moved to Springfield, a town in his own county. He then moved to Springfield as a legislator and got hired as a junior partner in a law firm. It was not an easy transition for him, since he was still pretty callow and uncouth.

He lived in Springfield for 24 years; it was his only true home. He became solidly middle-class, then with the help of wife Mary Todd began plotting a course that eventually led to the presidency. He was able to use his unsophisticated manner to his advantage as a lawyer, since it appealed to the common man on the jury. He also used the new medium of photography to good political effect, deliberately mussing up his hair for photos so that frontier people would recognize him as one of them.

He was a Whig at heart. Whigs were the party of more and bigger government, more railroads and transportation, and a national banking system. While personally he was anti-slavery, he didn’t at first address it politically, because the issue of slavery was bound up in the issue of states’ rights. He only began to involve himself in the slavery issue in 1854, after Stephen A. Douglas managed to overturn the Missouri Compromise.

Thomas Jefferson had predicted that if the Missouri Compromise was passed, the Union would be broken, and by the 1850s his prophecy was beginning to come true.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 declared that except for Missouri, slavery was not permitted in the northern part of the former Louisiana Territory, and this kept the slavery issue from exploding until mid-century, when America’s victory in the Mexican-American War added huge new territory in the West.

In 1854 Douglas overturned the Missouri Compromise with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which gave the white male voters of those territories the right to decide for themselves whether they wanted to allow slavery. This added to the country’s factionalism.

When the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, Lincoln spotted a political opening, and decided to take on Douglas in a series of debates that lasted for four years. He never tried to alienate the South by proposing to abolish slavery in states where it existed, only to stop its spread.

In 1857, the infamous Dred Scott decision heated things up even more. It declared that no black person, slave or free, could be a U.S. citizen, and that furthermore the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.

The final series of formal debates between Lincoln and Douglas took place the following year. Lincoln lost his bid for the the office of Republican senator from Illinois; Stephen Douglas was reelected in 1859.

(Kostyal 17 – 29)

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George Washington’s Education

George Washington was the third son of a plantation owner who died when his son was only eleven years old. His father’s early death eliminated any chances that the third son had for obtaining the English education received by his two older brothers. Our first president never attended school after the age of about fourteen or fifteen, and he never visited England.

(Wiencek 58-59)

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