Saturday, August 31, 2013

Was Early America Far More Convivial than 21st Century America?

While I have not been seeking it, I have come across  information about George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and life in Ohio in the 1830s that indicates that early Americans might have been far more convivial than we are today--Facebook and other social media notwithstanding.

Benjamin Franklin: a very friendly man.
Take Benjamin Franklin. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal on the newly refurbished museum on Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia,  "Visitors should leave behind any midcentury notions of a nuclear family. The museum shows Franklin lived in households brimming with nonrelatives. In Philadelphia, for instance, he resided with his mother-in-law and grandchildren as well as 'houseguests, boarders, apprentices, and free and enslaved servants.'"

This corroborates Steven Mintz's Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood, which reports that in early America, a family was considered everyone who lived in a household, including servants, apprentices, long-staying guests, adopted children or orphaned children living with the family, and anyone else on hand.

'Wherever Franklin lived, he established a household with friends and family members,' Remer curator] says. 'To his friends, he had this incredible ardor. He was so sociable.' Indeed, she says, Franklin had some 600 correspondents—people he wrote to on regular basis; these letters are 'not just quick notes' but 'are so full of warmth and love,' Remer says. 'These are people with whom he has real intellectual and emotional rapport.'" [emphasis added]

Then there is George Washington. According to Ron Chernow's George Washington: A Life, in the 16 years from their marriage til Washington departed Mount Vernon in 1775 to command the Continental Army, the Washingtons had more than 2,000 guests at their home, sitting at one time or another round the dining room table. Since Washington was a reluctant politician and wanted nothing more than to attend to all his business and agricultural activities at Mount Vernon, I think it would be wrong to assume that he was merely working to cultivate a social network as a means of gaining power. He and his wife simply loved talking and being with other people.

The Dining Room at Mount Vernon: Seems that places at the table were rarely empty.
The Washingtons also opened their home for long periods of time to various relatives and orphaned children. They adopted their two youngest grandchildren, after Martha's son Jack Custis died. It was always a full house at Mount Vernon, bursting with the sound of children and conviviality.
The last example of the amiability of Americans is from a fascinating book, American Grit: A Woman's letter from the Ohio Frontier, edited by Emily Foster. The book comprises letters written mostly by Anna Briggs Bentley, who moved to Ohio from Maryland with her husband and six children in 1826. The Bentleys moved near other Quakers, so they had a ready-made community around them, as they built their first house and struggled to eke out a living off the Ohio land.
What Mrs. Bentley describes in rich detail in writing to her mother and siblings in Maryland is that whenever anyone was sick in the area, a neighbor always appeared to help. When her own child was at death's door, she writes:
"We had set up with her ourselves til yesterday when they heard of it at Levi Miller's and Hannah came over in the afternoon, made pies and baked them, got supper. Susan Holland hailed Franklin when he returned from the Dr. When she was informed how Deborah was, she had her saddle put on [her horse], mounted her, and came here prepared to stay til a change takes place. Dear, kind girl. My hearts owns her as a sister. She is a most experienced and tender nurse. She has gone over the whole house, cleaned and put all to rights, and is now bending over the washtub after setting up all night. And she staid away from a wedding, too, to come."
Early American houses: filled to the brim? 
Such a scene is described many times in the letters, as neighbors always went to help a household that was in need.
The Bentleys also had a large household, not only of their own children, but of any hands they had hired to help them farm, of an older widow who had no money and came to live with them as a seamstress, and of nieces, nephews, and friends who came to visit for periods of time, as long as weeks and months.

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