Seduced, Abandoned, and Reborn

In attempting to steer young adults safely away from the dangers of market-driven society, reformers in early America created values that came to define the emerging urban middle class.

Seduced, Abandoned, and Reborn
Visions of Youth in Middle-Class America, 1780-1850

Rodney Hessinger

2005 | 264 pages | Cloth $55.00
American History
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Table of Contents


1. "Victims at the Shrine of Libertinism": Gender in the Seduction Tales of the Late Eighteenth Century

2. Victim of Seduction or Vicious Woman? Conceptions of the Prostitute at the Philadelphia Magdalen Society and Beyond

3. "The Most Powerful Instrument of College Discipline": The University of Pennsylvania and the Advent of Meritocracy in the Early Republic

4. Harvesting Youth: The Competition for Souls in Early Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia and Beyond

5. "The Young Man's Friend": Advice Manuals and the Dangerous Journey to Self-Made Manhood

6. Private Libertines: Emergent Strategies for the Control of Male Youth in Bourgeois America


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Recording his famous impressions of America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed surprise at the pervasiveness of American democracy. Its spirit had reached far beyond the realm of politics, extending even into the traditional institution of the family. Commenting on the relations between parents and children, the French aristocrat and traveler observed that while "vestiges" of parental authority remained, they were exercised only during the "first years of childhood." Adults rapidly released restraints on the young: "As soon as the young American approaches manhood, the ties of filial obedience are relaxed, day by day." Youth were soon wholly independent: "at the close of boyhood the man appears and begins to trace out his own path." In America, Tocqueville concluded, there was "strictly speaking, no adolescence." His words were both perceptive and prophetic. Youth did largely stand as adults in the early American republic. The modern notion of adolescence, conceived as a period of protected dependency following childhood, would not take shape until the end of the nineteenth century.

How had this occurred? Patriarchal control over youth had eroded to an unprecedented extent in the early American republic. To be sure, adults have always had some trouble ruling the young. Colonial America was no exception. By the late seventeenth century, ministers in New England already felt their grasp slipping, finding themselves delivering sexually suggestive sermons just to capture the attention of youth. Yet powerful influences were at work to uphold patriarchy in the colonial era. In subsistence farm communities, parents relied heavily on the labor of their sons and daughters. For this reason, parents were slow to give their children the means to establish their own families. With a highly restricted land market and few opportunities for wages, children had no choice but to wait patiently for parents to bestow property on them before they could set up on their own. In addition, village churches and courts steered the courting behavior of young adults. Puritan elders whipped youth for fornication, while Quaker men and women investigated young couples through committees of their Monthly Meetings. Not all youth were subjected to such patriarchal conventions or community control. Those young adults who arrived on their own in the New World had to worry less about parental interference, though they usually did have to serve out an indenture or apprenticeship before they could strike out alone. In the plantation economies of the South, parents could be indulgent with youth, for children's labor was dispensable when slaves were on hand. For the North, however, especially in stable communities beyond the seaboard, extended dependency was the common lot.

A number of factors made the early republic a particularly challenging era for patriarchy. Accepting the lessons of the Revolution, most Americans in the late eighteenth century came to believe that stern patriarchal rule was inappropriate in a democracy. Self-determination over major life choices, like choosing a marriage partner, would belong to the young, not their parents. In the early nineteenth century, the power of elders was further undermined. In the urban Northeast, a cultural marketplace for the attention of youth emerged. The Market Revolution, the rapid expansion of capitalist enterprise and industry, was critical to opening choices for the young. They would be empowered consumers, as elders competed for influence. In the case of publishing, for example, writers began to produce a steady stream of books for young adults. The market for youth went beyond what was being hawked in the storefronts of burgeoning cities. In colleges and churches alike, adults scrambled to gain hold of youth. In the midst of this fight, conservative moralists had to compromise their messages, but they did win various struggles. In fact, their voices would shape generations to come. Bourgeois Americans, those aspiring people who sought to improve themselves and those around them, would simultaneously create and absorb their lessons.

If youth were to be largely independent in America, how could elders hope to guide their actions? This became a central dilemma in emerging bourgeois culture. Persuasion, rather than coercion, became the main means to direct youth. That is, guardians tried to entice youth to listen to them. The challenge was not easy because others were competing for influence. Peers and corrupt elders could lead youth astray, indulging dangerous impulses in the young. To better comprehend this difficulty, consider briefly the world through the eyes of Ashbel Green. A conservative theologian and educator, this Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey (known today as Princeton) had seen his college wracked by riots and disorder in the early nineteenth century. He wished to reassert control over his institution. In a report to the board of trustees in 1816, Green observed how students could easily corrupt one another. "The new comers," he warned, "are not yet trained to the discipline of the house and are therefore fit materials to be seduced and converted into cat's paws" by devious older students. Presumably, entering students would want to earn the esteem of their peers and therefore were easily convinced to help carry out troublesome plots. Green's fear that students might be "seduced" into wrongful behavior was a major refrain in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America. How could Green earn the allegiance and obedience of incoming students? Ironically, Green too would have to enter the business of seduction.

Green's tough rhetoric about the "discipline of the house" was misleading. It belied the weak position of professors at his school. On the occasion of Green's inauguration, he had also blustered that he would not indulge youth: "Now a coaxing system, is exactly the worst kind of a thing that can be called government." He insisted he would not bend: "No in every deed -I shall coax no one -I shall thank no one for doing his duty -Why should I?" And yet already one could see cracks in his front. He quickly admitted, "every one who shall do well will be made happy," while "every one who shall excel shall be honoured." Alluding to his willingness to grant awards to students, Green was already prepared to rule with the carrot, not just the stick. It was a difficult balancing act. At what point did one bend too far? Like corrupt peers, professors had to persuade, perhaps even seduce, youth into following them. The danger in this was that it forced instructors to pander to the young. Fearing this problem, Green instructed his faculty that an "evil to be avoided" was the "undue desire of obtaining popularity among our pupils." Professors were failing to correct the young and instead were seeking to gain "their esteem and applause." This, in his view, was a mistake. It was sure to cause the "most lasting injury" to the school. In fact, Green was certain that professors' efforts to please students was "among the most prolific causes" of a recent "rebellion" suffered by the college. While winning the favor of the young might yield a professor temporary rewards, ultimately he would be "degraded into contempt." Students would come to understand they held the reins.

This dilemma was not simply a problem in the somewhat rarefied world of the early nineteenth-century college. After Ashbel Green left the College of New Jersey, he would face similar developments in religion. In churches, as in schools, adults were pandering to the young. As editor of Philadelphia's Old School Presbyterian journal, The Christian Advocate, Green would publish searing critiques of revivalists who were exciting and flattering youth. Green did not struggle alone. In fact, he was one among a large number of outspoken adults who tried to fight the shift in power to young adults. While young men, more than young women, would see their horizons expand in the early republic, both were granted a greater range of choices in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In a wide array of arenas, those who wished to guide youth had to compete with those who would seduce them. A surprisingly broad range of writers, people from disparate backgrounds and occupations, spoke in unison of the need to restrain, as well as guard, the young. Didactic novelists seeking to guide young women through courtship warned against the seductive ploys of male libertines. Writers on the dangers of masturbation battled the purveyors of pornography. Orthodox ministers struggled against the emotional appeals of evangelical firebrands. Ultimately, the voices of respectability were forced into the same pandering game. The line between guardian and seducer became blurred.


This book traces the story of Americans' reaction to the freedoms granted youth in the early republic. It demonstrates how the perceived social disorder of young adults helped shape the identity of the emerging middle class, particularly in the central sites of bourgeois cultural production: cities, schools, and presses. Regionally, it will concentrate on the urban Northeast, particularly the city of Philadelphia. In these centers of bourgeois cultural formation, elders coming to terms with troublesome youth crafted new values that would come to infuse middle- class society. The moralists who performed this cultural work did not set out to craft new ideologies, much less a new set of social relations. The challenge they faced, and the response to it with which this text is ultimately concerned, was to guide the next generation into stable and respectable stations in their families and communities. Their concern was not to secure status for youth in a material sense, so much as to transmit values that would keep them in good stead in an ever-changing society. Guiding the young was a vexing task in an age in which patriarchy had declined and youth could choose freely from a wide array of cultural vendors. Many of the values that advisors tried to impart had deep roots in the past. Chastity, virtue, piety, respect for elders, and hard work had all been important to colonial elders. But in the past one could rely on the broad support of a wider community to enforce these principles. Now these values had to be more deeply etched within the self, particularly for those seeking middle-class respectability. Freed from patriarchal constraints, empowered youth provoked the formation of bourgeois identity.

The stakes were high in trying to guide the young. The fact that the American population was demographically skewed toward youth in these years made the challenge for elders all the greater. Early American society was less age-graded than our own, so fixing definitive ages for the category of youth is tricky. The term was an open one, often used interchangeably with the phrases "young man" or "young woman." As a life stage, youth sat between childhood and adulthood. Rhetorically, it ended when one took on all the responsibilities of adulthood, such as a marriage and an occupation. As a loose guideline, however, we can see in the records of this era that early Americans generally considered the stage of youth as beginning in one's teens and lasting well into one's twenties. Given this, we can see that many Americans in this era fell into the category of youth. The historian Burton Bledstein has found that while the number of children under fifteen actually declined as the nineteenth century unfolded, the number of youth did not, with close to 30 percent of the population falling into the fifteen-to-twenty-nine age bracket.

In a symbolic sense, the challenge was even bigger than these numbers suggest. If traditionally the life stage of youth ended when one was settled into a permanent station in life, in a bourgeois society, a world in which people are always striving to get ahead, most everyone could be said to be a youth. Middle-class Americans never settled in a station, jumping from job to job and town to town. Geographic and occupational mobility characterized the bourgeoisie, so it should not be surprising that the words penned for youth in this era would come to define their class.

The cultural relationship between elders and youth underwent important changes over the course of the early republic. The chronology of this journey can be graphed as two intimately entwined trajectories. One pattern is the series of challenges offered by youth. The other is a corresponding series of responses by reformers. Ultimately, it is the second model we will privilege as this study progresses, for the goal of this book is to illuminate reformers' perceptions of, and reactions to, youth, more than it is to explore the lived social experiences of the young. Nonetheless, to illuminate the dynamic, to see how expanding freedoms for the young might have informed the cultural reactions of elders, it will be helpful for us to survey the changing lives of young adults in the early republic in some greater detail.

Youth seized a widening range of freedoms and choices in the early republic. If they did not often voice outright rebellion in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries, their growing boldness nonetheless greatly worried elders. As noted, the revolutionary era witnessed expanding courtship choices for youth. The trend actually predates the late eighteenth century, for growing land scarcity in the long-settled regions of the Northeast had already weakened the leverage of parents over children as the century unfolded. As the Revolution arrived, many Americans accepted growing freedom for youth vis-à-vis adults. Patriarchal authority exerted over youth, more so than that exercised over other dependents like slaves, was criticized as an unjust form of tyranny like that wielded by the British king over his subjects. Shrinking parental control was tied to declining community influence. In the colonial past, tightly bound religious communities had regulated the courting and sex life of youth through churches, courts, and neighborhoods. Both verbal and physical chastisement had been used to prevent premarital sex and to pressure youth into marriage. As religious fervor waned and families sought privacy, however, the community decreasingly interfered in courtship and sexual life. By the end of the eighteenth century, both parents and community were less involved in the negotiation of marriage. At the same time, youth embraced more sexual freedom, especially having more sex out of wedlock, producing what one historian has called a "sexual revolution" in the young nation.

Youth also took advantage of growing freedoms in colleges and churches. Both developments, most fully realized in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century, like changes in courtship, can be linked to an extension of democratic ideals. Certain market conditions, however, made their expression more fully possible. Exciting new religious choices appeared for youth in urban America in the early nineteenth century. There was, to be sure, tremendous religious diversity in cities like Philadelphia before these years, but the resurgence of evangelical forces at this time drew more distinct lines both between and within churches, lines that demarked real differences in attitudes toward youth. Some preachers openly courted the young, encouraging them to break from the churches of fellow pastors. Similarly, colleges faced new market pressures in these years. By the 1810s and '20s colleges had proliferated tremendously, leaving youth with the preponderance of negotiating power in their struggles with educators. Youth found themselves increasingly cherished as consumers by schools that had to fight with one another for their very survival. In addition, colleges provided an environment where youth could band together in ways unimaginable elsewhere in American society. It is not surprising, therefore, that colleges would struggle with many student disturbances in these years.

By the 1830s and '40s unprecedented urban opportunities opened for the young. The Market Revolution cut many male youth loose from their families. As business and industry expanded, some apprentices faced declining prospects, slipping into the working class. Nonetheless, many other youth found economic opportunity as clerks and bookkeepers in the expanding storefronts and shops that lined city avenues. Young men also had growing options about how to spend their newly earned salaries and wages. Living in boardinghouses, away from parents and employers in anonymous cities, male youth were less accountable than ever. Many competing cultural vendors awaited the young as they entered the urban world. Gambling houses, taverns, brothels, and theaters opened their doors to youth. Booksellers also plied their wares. Fueled by important new technological advances in printing, the publishing industry boomed, offering a wide range of reading fare for the young. The most disturbing result of these changes was an increasingly visible youth culture that celebrated licentiousness. Young men who indulged in this so-called rake culture could procure pornography and revel in seduction as they read a seamy new brand of literature that guided them through the urban underworld.

These, then, were the changes that the self-anointed reformers of youth were battling in the early republic. But not all the problems imagined by the reformers were real. It is fully plausible that moralists may at times have conjured up more difficulties than existed. The saga of student disorder at the University of Pennsylvania, a story taken up in Chapter 3, provides an example. At Penn in the early nineteenth century, student disorder never seemed to reach greater heights than silly pranks and surliness toward professors. Yet the provost, Frederic Beasley, was so worried by the very real riots and disorders he saw plaguing other colleges that he perceived his school to be on the precipice of disaster. His perception, accurate or not, drove his actions. In cultural history it is a truism that perception is more important than reality. Still, in the case of youth in the early republic, the two often did correspond to one another. While some reformers did have overactive imaginations, at this point historians have assembled enough evidence, to which this study will contribute more, to establish that substantial new freedoms and opportunities were available and being seized by the young in the early republic.

So how did reformers respond? The path moralists forged in their effort to contain youth began with novels and periodical fiction. As the literary critic Cathy Davidson has discussed, the birth of the American republic was intimately bound up with the rise of the American novel. The novel seems a curious place from which to stage a reform campaign. The literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin has famously argued that the very hallmark of the novel is its dialogism, its ability and tendency to voice competing perspectives from society. Different passages and sentiments, he insists, will resonate distinctly with each reader. Context, rather than text, determines meaning. Writers in the early republic actually understood some of these difficulties with the novel. They nonetheless had high hopes for its potential for moral influence.

Because the novel mixed entertainment with instruction, it had the ability to lure readers who might ignore straight didacticism. American writers did their best to contain the mutable character of fiction. The narratives that late eighteenth-century Americans composed and imported had a distinctive reformist cast. Showing a decided preference for the didactic strains of the eighteenth-century British novelist Samuel Richardson over the worldly satire of fellow Briton Henry Fielding, Americans saw great promise in the novel as a tool of moral instruction. Seduction tales, narratives that warned young women to avoid the dangerous sexual ploys of men, proved most attractive of all. While certainly there was a lingering distrust of fiction, a range of writers saw novels as a persuasive means to discourage the young from illicit sex. American writers did their best to ensure that readers did not misconstrue their messages.

Convinced by and impressed with the moral lessons of seduction fiction, Philadelphia reformers in 1800 decided to carry their moral reform vision into brick and mortar. The Philadelphia Magdalen Society asylum, an institution meant to rescue young prostitutes from the consequences of male treachery, was a logical extension of seduction fiction. It was founded by paragons of the Philadelphia community, men such as Bishop William White, head of the Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania. The essential agreement of these reformers with Susanna Rowson, a novelist and playwright (occupations more suspect in this age), suggests a surprisingly broad consensus about the dangers facing youth at the turn of the century. And yet as the nineteenth century unfolded, the meaning of seduction fiction began to unravel. The operators of the Philadelphia Magdalen Society would witness this firsthand.

The novel proved untrustworthy as a vehicle for moral lessons. Encouraged by the managers of the Magdalen society, Philadelphia prostitutes began to read their own past into seduction tales. The dialogue between their lurid pasts and the stock seduction narrative, which positioned women as pure victims, pulled at the seams of the narrative. Increasingly the seduction tale was stretched to cover and excuse behavior that was shocking to bourgeois moralists. In New York the notorious prostitute Helen Jewett draped her sexual improprieties in stories of violated innocence. Similarly, several famous early nineteenth-century courtroom trials concerning seduction inspired vigorous celebrations of homicide in print, justifying murder as a response to seduction. In 1804 a Presbyterian minister, Samuel Miller, accused the novel of framing "an apology for suicide, adultery, prostitution, and the indulgence of every propensity for which a corrupt heart can plead an inclination." If his warnings seemed overzealous at the turn of the century, by midcentury many more would have found his sentiments persuasive.

As society tested and strained the meanings of moralistic seduction fiction, the ability of the novel to support reform collapsed. The didacticism of the late eighteenth-century novel gave way to two new novelistic forms, both ill-suited for advancing moral campaigns. Sensationalism and sentimentalism dominated the world of early nineteenth century fiction. Both strains ostensibly pursued moral aims, but the performance was unconvincing. Writers of sensational fiction like George Lippard inveighed against seduction, but he simultaneously aroused sexual desire with erotically charged descriptions of female bodies and violence. Sentimentalists seemed the more natural heirs of the didactic form. Promoting causes such as temperance and abolitionism, sentimentalist authors did not wholly abandon the world. Still, the fundamental impulse of sentimental fiction was inward toward the self, not outward toward society. Sentimental scenes of suffering in novels were more apt to inspire delicious tears rather than principled institution building. Reformers did not give up on the power of the press, far from it —but as we will see, when they took up publishing again with renewed vigor in the 1830s and '40s, they moved to surer footing. By this point, advice literature, a more pure form of didacticism, had replaced the novel as the major means for influencing youth in print.

In the intervening years, reformers had taken to building institutions, especially colleges and Sunday schools, to guide the young. Colleges were initially inspired by republican dreams. Educators probably did not believe that all youth would attend college, but they did hope that those who did could form a virtuous leadership that would guide the country into the future. Riots and disorders dashed such hopes. Students were more inclined to mock and challenge professors, showing little concern for educators' goals. By the Jacksonian era, few could have hoped that struggling colleges would direct the country on a path of virtue. New reform strategies, however, were simultaneously being born in the fervor of evangelical revival.

The Second Great Awakening inspired the rapid founding of voluntary societies meant to save the souls of youth. Quickly, however, elders discovered the disruptive potential of evangelical religion. Fighting to save their own congregations, conservative Presbyterian ministers had to rebuff the inroads made by upstart groups like the Methodists. Matters became more alarming when evangelical flames began to engulf their own churches. In response, conservative churchmen created new institutions that absorbed some of the energy of the evangelical voluntary forms but preserved their own sense of hierarchy and order. The Sunday school embodied this compromise between old and new. Something else the Sunday school movement learned to harness was the power of new printing technologies. Reform writers would quickly apply this lesson in the Jacksonian era.

Reformers began to write two new major forms of advice literature in the 1830s and '40s. One new genre was the advice book written for the young man launching his career in the city. Despite their ostensibly secular purpose, these texts carried an unmistakable evangelical tone. According to these books, dangerous temptations lurked around every corner, as various seducers tried to take advantage of young men. In light of such dangers, writers insisted that success was predicated more on character and conscience than on business acumen. In the anonymous world of the city, they insisted, morality had to be inculcated in the self. The second major form of advice literature was the antimasturbation text. Also indebted to evangelicalism, writers of these books replaced the sentimental appeal of seduction fiction with heavy-handed warnings against dabbling in sin. These midcentury sex reformers used language and metaphors that paralleled the work of other evangelical reformers. Temperance writing was a clear inspiration. If one sip of alcohol could lead one on a rapid downward slide towards alcoholism and degeneracy, for sex reformers one touch led a young man to sexual addiction. While this literature had jettisoned the ambiguities of fiction, it quickly revealed scandalous potentialities of its own by scaring audiences with grisly descriptions of sexual disease. Ultimately, the writers of this literature would serve order by calling on doctors and guardians to watch over youth who were incapable of controlling themselves.

From a bird's eye view we might see an evolving strategy of reform, one that starts with fiction, moves to institution building, and then finally revisits literature, but of a more pure didactic form. But such a summary would erroneously suggest a deliberate progression. The moralists who reacted to youth were a diverse group. They probably would not have recognized many of their compatriots as their own. In fact, they really should be seen as various discrete camps of reformers, only occasionally overlapping in thought and personnel. Didactic novelists, asylum directors, college educators, Sunday school proponents, advice writers, and sex-reform authors — all pursued their own unique visions. Princeton president Ashbel Green would probably have had little to do with novelist Susanna Rowson. But, there is real reason to examine them together. All agreed about the essential nature of the problem they faced. And all gradually worked toward fundamentally similar solutions to resolve them. To better understand the answers they devised we must place their work in some broader theoretical context.


To frame the problem faced by moralists slightly differently, to more fully comprehend the dialectic that developed between youth and elders, we might say that Americans in the early republic were forced to come to terms with the logic of John Locke's pedagogy on an unprecedented scale. The English philosopher's 1693 text, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, anticipated with remarkable clarity the dilemmas faced by the guardians of youth in the early American republic. The overlap between Locke's ideas and those of other thinkers such as the Scottish moral sense writers makes it nearly impossible to draw lines of influence, especially since moral philosophy was most often popularized in fiction, not in philosophical treatises. Ultimately this book will not demonstrate the direct impact of Locke, but rather the maturation of a Lockean paradigm; it will highlight the development of strategies for influencing youth who were granted a larger share of freedom in society. Locke explored closely the challenges of rearing children who desired and possessed freedom. The solutions he proffered were echoed in the choices made by writers and guardians in the early republic. Whether groping to Lockean solutions on their own or finding inspiration in his writings, moralists in the early republic elaborated a range of Lockean strategies to shape the behavior of the young.

To understand the dynamics of the young republic, then, it should be instructive to briefly explore Locke's pedagogical thought through a close reading of his Some Thoughts Concerning Education. In it one can see the interplay between the twin impulses to indulge, but simultaneously direct, the young. One important starting point for Locke's child-rearing theory was the desire for liberty in the young, a craving he believed present in mere infants. "We naturally," he insisted, "even from our Cradles, love Liberty, and have therefore an Aversion to many things for no other Reason but because they are enjoin'd us." While he did advocate extending freedoms to youth as they aged, his first goal was to teach parents how to govern. The one instance for which Locke reserved corporal punishment as a "last Remedy" was when children showed an "Obstinacy," or "manifest Perverseness of the Will," that is, when they openly defied the authority of their parents. While Locke believed that children should conform to the will of parents, he recommended a range of noncoercive strategies that would prevent any counterproductive clashing of wills. Rather than commanding children to do things as an act of obedience, Locke believed parents should persuade children to listen to them. At some level, then, Locke was already accommodating children's desire for liberty.

Parents might be able to persuade by manipulating young children's perceptions of the world. Learning to read, for example, instead of being presented as a duty, might be "made a Play and Recreation." Parents could cultivate a "desire to be taught" if learning "were proposed to them as a thing of Honour, Credit, Delight, and Recreation, or as a Reward for doing something else." As children aged, reason was increasingly to be used as a tool of persuasion. Once grown, he instructed, children would have to monitor their own behavior according to reason rather than desire. It therefore behooved parents to spell out the logic of the demands they made on children. Similarly, Locke also urged the power of example over precept. The force of example could be pressed in two ways. Parents were to comment on the behavior of others, as well as model proper behavior for their children. If parents took unwarranted liberties and then chastised a child for doing "what he sees you practice yourself," the child would resent the parent. He would think the punishment proceeds from "Peevishness and arbitrary Imperiousness." According to Locke, the son naturally feels deserving of the same liberties indulged in by the parent. Parents therefore had to be careful to regulate their own behavior before the young. Here we can see that children's desire for liberty made real demands on elders.

The most "powerful Incentives to the Mind" of children, Locke insisted, were the persuasive tools of "Esteem and Disgrace." Parents were to praise children for good behavior and express shock, disappointment, or simply ignore children when they erred. If parents could get children to possess a "Love of Credit" and an "Apprehension of Shame and Disgrace," the major work for child rearing had been accomplished. The effectiveness of this approach was predicated on affectionate bonds between parents and children. Because children "find a Pleasure in being esteem'd and valu'd, especially by their Parents," they were quite malleable to reinforcement tactics. This means of persuasion became particularly vital as children matured. Young adults were not easily intimidated into performing their duty.

As the child grew older, filial bonds were to be cemented by an extension of familiarity and friendship. The discipline of children, Locke insisted, was to be relaxed "as fast as their Age, Discretion, and good Behavior could allow it." Rather than talking sternly to a youth, a father would do well to "talk familiarly" with him. The "sooner you treat him as a Man, the sooner he will begin to be one." Similarly, he suggested that youth were to be admitted into the "Friendship" of parents. Welcomed into more egalitarian relations, a youth would find "himself happy under the Management of so favorable a Friend and so careful a Father." It would be foolhardy to treat them otherwise: "We would be thought rational Creatures, and have our Freedom," Locke observed, "Whosoever has such Treatment when he is a Man, will look out other Company, other Friends, other Conversation, with whom he can be at Ease."

Overall, Locke promoted a child-rearing strategy that sought to accommodate the desire for freedom in children and indulged the desire for liberty in youth. Success was predicated on the development of reason and the internalization of parental values. In Locke's scheme coercive strategies such as corporal punishment or the threat of disinheritance had limited applicability. Compulsion would only work so long as parents were present. Threats of punishment had diminishing returns as youth began to move in wider circles: "Every Man must some Time or other be trusted to himself and his own Conduct; and he that is a good, a virtuous, and able Man, must be made so within." Threats created only a temporary restraint, for a youth could easily put on a "counterfeit Carriage, and dissembled Outside" to "avoid the present Anger of a Father who perhaps may disinherit him." The mask of virtue could be easily dropped when beyond the view of parents. To truly change the hearts of youth, elders would have to turn to persuasion over coercion.

The era of the early republic was an age made for Lockean child-rearing strategies. The decades at the close of the eighteenth century and start of the nineteenth century would extend and exaggerate some important patterns already underway at the time of the American Revolution. As we have seen, in the decades following American independence, youth would enjoy an expanding range of freedom, a growing range of choices in courtship, religious affiliation, and occupation. If moral guardians wished to direct the young, they therefore would have to persuade youth to buy into their ideals and values. As noted, one new means available for persuasion from the revolutionary era forward was the novel. Locke himself seemed to anticipate this powerful form. Locke had recommended parables as an important means for imparting values. Parables, he said, could teach lessons in an attractive form. They could "delight and entertain" children, especially if accompanied with illustrations. Parents thus could "tempt" children into virtue. Late eighteenth-century American novels resembled parables. Drawing portraits grounded in true stories, purposely blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, writers tried to inspire readers to learn lessons from the experiences of characters.

Other instructors of youth would turn to different Lockean means. In colleges educators would increasingly see promise in Lockean reinforcement techniques. Frustrated by youth who cared more about the opinion of their peers than that of their professors, educators tried to develop ways to earn the loyalty of students. By conferring esteem and disgrace through grading, they hoped to inspire youth to excellence. Writers of advice literature for the young man entering the business world also used Lockean techniques. Striking the Lockean pose, they always insisted that they were friends to the reader. The young should follow their friendly counsel, they insisted, because of their deep affection for them. Eventually, all would find themselves accommodating youth in one way or another, seemingly endangering their own endeavors. Such indulgence, however, was unavoidable in an age when youth held an increasingly better bargaining position. It also was a dynamic inherent in the act of persuasion.

We might even more fully comprehend this dynamic between advisors and youth if we briefly view their relation through one other theoretical lens, that of Michel Foucault. This book explores some of the same historical terrain probed by this famous late twentieth-century philosopher. Using Foucault's terminology, especially as he develops it in The History of Sexuality, volume 1, and Discipline and Punish, one might say this book tracks the deployment of new technologies of power. In more straightforward terms, this book looks at the development of new means of regulating behavior in bourgeois society and in young adults in particular. We will see how reformers devised new methods of evaluating, organizing, and watching youth in the early American republic, all key mechanisms, according to Foucault, in the spread of disciplinary power. Foucault argues that in the emerging bourgeois societies of the West in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was a fundamental shift away from externally imposed sanctions and toward the incitement of internalized measures of self-control. In other words, people learned to police themselves. This, in essence, is the goal of Lockean pedagogy. Thus this study can add a new ideological dimension to Foucault's schema by describing the spread of Lockean techniques. With its emphasis on using persuasion rather than coercion to direct behavior, Lockean child-rearing promoted the internalization of values.

This study departs from Foucault, however, in at least one important respect. Foucault's notion of power has been critical in academic circles because he has shifted focus away from the obvious, and in his view, less effective, forms of power such as the apparatus of the state, and toward more hidden but more tenacious forms of power that move, as if along capillaries, through the individuals that constitute societies. While this book by no means seeks to displace Foucault's formulations on power, it should import a sense of human agency and negotiation that is often absent from his work.

Foucault's notion of power sometimes operates as if it were a disembodied force that has a will of its own. With research closer to the ground, however, the interplay of historical actors who helped form bourgeois values becomes more apparent. Foucault suggests that knowledge and power were more hierarchically organized over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Atop this hierarchy were the expert ranks of the bourgeoisie: reformers, psychiatrists, educators, and physicians. Because power does not reside in their actual persons but is distributed throughout society, the hierarchy seems quite formidable and resilient. Resistance to power in Foucault often seems futile and even counterproductive, almost as if those who were subject to its operations were trying to wrestle free from a glue trap; every effort to resist catches one more fully in its grip. In this book, we will witness closely the troubles of bourgeois reformers in the early American republic who were trying to direct youth. Their tenuous hold on young adults is palpable. Working hard to woo young adults to their messages, they are sometimes forced into compromising positions. In Foucauldian terms, the demanding cultural marketplace of the early American republic resisted the normalizing judgment of experts. In other words, disorderly youth exposed the weaknesses of the emergent bourgeois order.


If the primary goal of this book is to elucidate the efforts of reformers to instill self-control within youth, its secondary aim is an analysis of the formation of the middle class. Concentrating on a Northeastern urban cultural milieu, this book will put greater emphasis on print culture and transatlantic ideologies than previous studies of the creation of the American bourgeoisie have done. By giving what the British historian G. J. Barker-Benfield has called the "culture of sensibility" a more prominent role in emerging conceptions of gender, this book aims to better capture the cosmopolitan origins of the middle class. Laying witness to competing print forms in urban America, it will demonstrate that cultural conservatives were forced to weaken their messages to win popular support. The theme of cultural competition will be applied to arenas outside the world of print. Taking its cue from many of the outstanding new studies of the early republic, this book will apply notions of market competition to the arena of college education, as well as religion.

This text will focus particularly on the city of Philadelphia. Quickly exited off the historiographic stage after the revolutionary era, Philadelphia has long been neglected, certainly in comparison to New York City, by students of the early republic. It deserves a much more central place in the narrative of the young nation. Bruce Dorsey has recently taken some steps to amend this negligence. Noting that Philadelphia gave birth to "almost every kind of benevolent and reform society," he makes a convincing case that Philadelphia both led and mirrored reform movements across America. For this study, Philadelphia's leadership in prostitution reform and Sunday schools is of greatest concern. Even Philadelphia's failures should prove instructive to historians. The fact that the booming young city could not adequately fill the University of Philadelphia with students reveals much about the state of higher education in this era. As the cultural center of the young nation until at least the 1830s, Philadelphia set many standards for Americans in smaller market centers. Building on various studies of New York City, this book aims to situate the formation of the bourgeoisie in the urban East.

Some precise definitions are in order. As already noted, youth was a decidedly amorphous stage of life sitting between childhood and adulthood. While the matter of age can, and in fact should, be left relatively open, we should pin down more precisely in terms of class, race, and geography which youth we are considering. In the early republic a certain group of youth would arrest the attention of moralists more than any other. Concerned with the reactions of reformers to youth, we must replicate their preoccupations. Our subject will be the youth whom Jared Waterbury, an advice writer, had in mind. In opening one of the many volumes penned for youth in the early American republic, this writer and minister identified the intended audience for his work. "The class of individuals to whom this work is inscribed," Waterbury wrote, are "those who belong to our principal cities and colleges." He did not say so explicitly, but Waterbury might have added he was most interested in white, middling youth, in particular. For Waterbury, such youth represented the "hope of the country"; they embodied the "influence which is destined to sway the moral and political interests of the nation." These youth did in fact "sway" the future of America, although perhaps not in the way Waterbury had in mind. He was as much open to the influence of youth as they were to his influence, possibly more. Waterbury's youth were most liable to the twin influences of ideological and economic change that disrupted age relations in this era. Changing ideologies about governance and authority were felt strongly at the seats of learning. Northern cities were central sites for market growth. Printing presses issued their products from urban centers. Youth in such locales became quite conspicuous. Although this work cannot account for the experiences of all youth, it explores the impact of a select and influential group of youth on American culture.

The American bourgeoisie also requires definition. The creation of the American middle class is a relatively neglected topic. The formation of the working class has garnered much more attention from students of the early American republic. Following the lead of the British labor historian E. P. Thompson, historians of the American working class have paid close attention to expressions of class conflict in their subjects. After demonstrating a growing material divide separating the laboring population from the bourgeoisie, historians of the American working class have looked for the growth of values in their subjects that approached class-consciousness. The closest scholar of middle-class formation, Stuart Blumin, has largely followed the lead of historians of the working class, providing a materialist reading of the emergence of the middle class. While Blumin opts for the slightly softer concept of "class awareness" over class-consciousness, he ties bourgeois identity to specific material practices, artifacts, and spaces. The divide between manual and nonmanual labor, specialized spaces for work, shopping and consumption, expensive row homes with parlors and pianos—these, for Blumin, are the things that made the middle class. Undoubtedly they did, but there was also more. Such a reading of the middle class largely neglects the realm of the shared values that came to characterize the bourgeoisie. Respectability could be achieved not only by what one wore or the home one lived in but also by what one said and did in company.

Class formation cannot be reduced to the material world alone. In an important study of the creation of the British middle class, Dror Wahrman has persuasively argued that considerable space exists between the social reality of class and its cultural representation or recognition. While Wahrman traces the deployment of a highly specific language of self-identification by class, this book will use a more open definition of class formation, perhaps more appropriate for a study of the American bourgeoisie. As Wahrman himself observes, Americans, in comparison to British citizens, very infrequently used the category of middle class to identify a particular sector of their society. If bourgeois Americans did not self-identify themselves as a distinct class, this does not exclude the possibility that they forged a distinct bourgeois ethic in their society. For Americans, it was the simultaneously more elusive and more accessible goal of achieving respectability that motivated the would-be bourgeoisie. It was elusive because it was more open to interpretation and contestation; it was nonetheless more accessible and expansive because it was more easily claimed by aspirants. In a society in which battles did not have to be pitched against an aristocracy for core political rights like voting, middling Americans had much less cause to rally one another to form a self-described unit.

In several respects, a state of détente and amalgamation developed between elite and middling Americans in the decades following the Revolution. Those Americans rising in the social order paid homage to the old elite by adopting many of their refining manners and artifacts. Meanwhile, aristocratic Americans deferred to the emerging bourgeoisie in public life. Culturally discredited by a revolution against monarchy, the old aristocracy withdrew from the public stage in the early republic. Reform crusades were not the province of a withering and displaced elite, as historians once supposed. Rather, efforts to forge social order were driven by rising men of middling and upper status, many enjoying new-won wealth. Certain old elites did serve as figureheads for some prominent voluntary societies, but they never formed the core group of such agencies. Identifying individual moralists as belonging to a certain class position is in fact of little consequence to this project. Instead, the nature of social bonds within Northern American society will be our concern.

The term "bourgeois" will be used more to capture a social dynamic than a specific group of people. Americans were moving away from a world where one's status was ascribed, inherited by birth, and toward one where status was self-determined and voluntarily negotiated. Bourgeois values embodied the hope of self-determination and upward mobility in an open social world. In economic and educational institutions, this meant competition and achievement based on merit. This was as much constricting as liberating. Hard work, self-discipline, and even respect for elders became necessary to success. Seemingly more private spheres of action, such as the home and church, sponsored bourgeois values too. Here one can think of the work of the historians Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, who situate the formation of the English middle class in the nexus of gender and evangelical religion. Young Americans would have more choices to make about affiliation both in courtship and in places of worship. Again, however, freedom of choice came with responsibilities. One might easily be seduced into disreputable matches, so moral instructors warned youth against flights of passion.

In brief, we will explore the formation of bourgeois notions of meritocracy, chastity, domesticity, and a settled and sentimental piety. Each of these core components of bourgeois identity emerged in the effort to guide the young into respectable stations. Such notions certainly could help codify class categories too. In Europe, according to scholars such as Ian Watt and Isabel V. Hull, studying England and Germany respectively, the emerging bourgeoisie rhetorically measured its sexual modesty and self-control against the licentiousness of the aristocracy. Even in America, bourgeois values could be used to draw class lines. If an aristocracy was conspicuously absent in the early republic, Americans still could use the European aristocracy as an important referent, pitting republican simplicity against aristocratic decadence. As the nineteenth century progressed, the American bourgeoisie would also increasingly draw a line between themselves and those beneath them, contrasting working-class degeneracy with middle-class decorum. Still, for the period of our study, it was middling youth who most preoccupied bourgeois moralists. Fears of a dangerous working class were certainly important in shaping American bourgeois values as well, but this interpretation has been overstated.

As a corollary to this cultural definition of the middle class, it should be emphasized that Americans did not always live up to their own espoused values. Historians have been discovering, for example, that many women were not confined to the home in the ways dictated by the ideology of domesticity. Nonetheless, it is equally clear that the notion of a private separate sphere for women was an important cultural prescription that was intoned regularly by the voices of bourgeois respectability. In other words, domesticity was an important cultural standard against which behavior was judged, even if behavior sometimes violated it. Similar observations could be offered about the other bourgeois values explored in this book. The goal is to see why bourgeois Americans came to imagine themselves as they did, not whether they always fulfilled these representations. The problems presented by youth in the early republic helped forge those values that became cultural markers of the emerging middle class.


This study opens with an analysis of seduction tales. This fiction voiced concerns about dangers facing young women in courtship. In late eighteenth century novels and periodicals, readers repeatedly encountered the plot line of a young innocent woman being seduced and abandoned, often with child, by a male rake. This plot line had special resonance for American readers who were witnessing booming rates of premarital pregnancy and bastardy in their communities. This fiction was a critically important cultural site for working out new responses to the courting freedom of young adults. These tales would fix new notions of gender and virtue that would become central to bourgeois thinking. In chapter two we will view the reception of seduction fiction in the early nineteenth century through the experience of the Philadelphia Magdalen Society. This institution aimed to address the problem of prostitution, which it largely attributed to the machinations of young male seducers. Up to this point, historians of prostitution have been familiar with the New York Female Moral Reform Society, a group formed in the 1830s that loudly denounced men for the exploitation of women. The Philadelphia group, founded in 1800, actually seems a better vehicle for understanding larger cultural developments. Given their growing skepticism toward victimized women, we will see that the Magdalen Society led and reflected larger American dialogues about class and virtue.

If guiding the sexual development of youth proved challenging, so too did efforts at education. In chapter 3 we will look at college troubles in the early nineteenth century through the lens of the University of Pennsylvania. Beset with riots and disorders, but also desperate to hang on to coveted students, college authorities moved slowly. Gradually, however, they devised important new strategies to control youth. To illustrate this, we will witness the intellectual journey of Penn's provost Frederic Beasley as he applied the insights of John Locke to his own college troubles. Beasley, like other college leaders at this time, sought a way to divide and rule his students. We will see that as educators developed new solutions, notions of competition and meritocracy became central to their pedagogy.

At the same time that colleges were struggling with disorderly students, ministers were increasingly confronted with righteous youth. Chapter 4 explores important transformations in mainline religion inspired by efforts to keep hold of and direct the young. Religious revival activity visited the urban East in the early nineteenth century but was not as triumphant there as farther west. Revivalists like Philadelphia pastor James Patterson challenged age hierarchy with fervent Christianity. Patterson empowered both male and female youth to spread the gospel and criticize seemingly impious elders. In response, orthodox ministers and laymen developed an important counteroffensive to the disruptions of revivalists who pandered to the passions of youth. We will see how and why in the 1820s and '30s conservative and moderate leaders embraced Sunday schools. In Sunday schools, potentially disruptive youth were turned into dutiful agents for the replenishment of established churches. We will see how notions of religious decorum and even theology were reworked in this effort to guide the young.

By the Jacksonian era, urban economic opportunities were increasingly a beacon for aspiring youth. Rather than leaving the young man to stake out a path wholly on his own, many bourgeois writers wrote self-help manuals to mentor male youth through the perils of the marketplace. Chapter 5 considers the product of their efforts. These writers were the beneficiaries of new advances in printing technologies, but they also had to counter the results of a newly flooded book market. Their books reveal an ambivalent embrace of market values that ultimately pointed bourgeois Americans towards the ideology of the self-made man. While these writers did accept self-interest as a means to motivate human behavior, the endorsement of market values did not come easily. Promoting self-interest required Jacksonian advice writers to explicitly and deliberately subordinate earlier notions of publicly crafted virtue and privately cultivated conscience that conflicted with the ideal of self-made man.

Cities and presses loomed as dangers for sex-reform writers as well. The final chapter of this book considers the effort to control the sexual lives of young men that emerged in the Jacksonian era. Problems with promiscuity seemed more intractable than ever. Visible coteries of young men assembled around brothels in cities. Some authors took to celebrating their licentious lifestyles. In response, reformers began to revisit their conceptions of male youth. Because reformers of all stripes believed that addiction to sin flowed inevitably from even minor offences, sex reformers became convinced that they had to warn youth against masturbation. Ironically, these writers soon found they were open to the charge of inciting, not discouraging masturbation. We will see that the tortured relationship of the bourgeoisie to sex, their simultaneous revulsion and obsession with it, was played out in their talk about youth.

The difficulty of governing youth left a large imprint on an emerging middle class. Advisors would enjoy only partial success in their efforts to shape youth. Still, they did discover means to persuade and discipline them. By the mid-nineteenth century adolescent dependence was clearly in the offing. Even more importantly, bourgeois propriety was awaiting youth as they grew into adulthood.