American Children of the 19th Century: Representatives of the Republic


Once upon a time, in 19th century America, children were actually encouraged to be ruffians, rebellious and rascally representatives of the revolutionary republic. According to visitors from Britain, young Americans were disrespectful, used foul language and were fighting hooligans. One written document describes them as 10-year-old cigar-smoking bar patrons. Another account states that there are no children in America, just “small stuck-up caricatures of men and women.”

According to various sources, this sort of “hands-off” parenting, which resulted in such bawdy behavior, was quite on purpose. Fathers in America were noted as being braggarts. They were proud of how their unruly offspring were true young republicans; free of the rules of outmoded hierarchies. As one Englishman explained it, the theory of equality, while exhibited at the ballot box, was “running rampant in the nursery.” This rowdy subculture of the wild was primarily populated by boys aged five to twelve. Those years between no longer needing their mothers and being useful to their fathers were filled with playing and/or fighting.

Literary critic and realist writer, William Dean Howells, had a largely violent childhood in Ohio. He recalled spending many hours stoning things, from friends and foes to stray dogs. Other boys his age were his constant companions. He wrote that he and his gang maimed many wild animals in vain attempts to domesticate them.

In a less of a survival mode way than The Lord of the Flies, the fact that the boys of the 19th century were left on their own forced them to adopt a level of assertiveness that informed their adult years. The subculture into which these boys were immersed provided the training needed for the expectations that would be put upon them as grown American Empire builders. It was also a sort of pardon prior to an adult life full of labor and hardship.

That reprieve, though now envisioned as knicker-clad youths rolling a hoop down the avenue with a stick, was more realistically portrayed as dungaree-wearing scamps with knives. In a popular game called mumblety-peg, competitors would throw a pocket knife as close to their own foot as possible. In some versions, the loser would have to remove the knife from the ground with his teeth.

While many of these groups of boys primarily harmed themselves and unlucky animals, some formed true gangs. These fellows could be found harassing the elderly, handicapped and mentally ill as well as ethnic minorities. They either organized or were involved in brutal attacks against the Chinese laborers in San Francisco, the draft riots in New York City that targeted African-Americans, and Philadelphia’s pogroms against the Irish.

Conversely, their sisters had a slightly different upbringing. Though they were allotted time for some of their own outdoorsy play, like climbing trees and frolicking in a nearby creek, the girls were expected to help in the home. As young as seven or eight, they were given menial tasks and generally assisted in taking some of the load off of their mothers. American girls of the 19th century, however, were just as republican as their brothers, despite their familial obligations.

Regardless of the general belief that children in 2014 are too coddled and protected to genuinely represent the free-thinking and open society to which they belong, perhaps the last laugh belongs to them. Howells wrote that children are tougher to shape and guide than parents are willing to admit. In every place and at all times the world of children is “outside of the laws that govern grown-up communities.”

It is not children who have changed so much as the expectations of adults. The rough-and-tumble youth representatives of the 19th century American Republic, however, could be terrific role models for the obese, lay-about children who represent modern-day Capitalism.

Opinion By Stacy Lamy


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