Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Domestic Tranquility: Privacy and the Household in Revolutionary America

· October 22nd, 2019 · 1 Comment

Today’s post accompanies “Creating the Fourth Amendment,” episode 261 of Ben Franklin’s World and part of Doing History 4: Understanding the Fourth Amendment.

by Lauren Duval

The image of a victorious and weary George Washington retiring to Mount Vernon after eight long years of battle and war is etched in the historical memory of the American Revolution. General Washington returned home as a civilian, the American Cincinnatus returning to Mount Vernon to reside under his “vine and fig-tree.”[1] The biblical allusion, common throughout Washington’s personal writings and popularized most recently in Hamilton’s rendition of Washington’s Farewell Address, has long been connected to the rhetoric of the American Revolution. Colonists adopted the metaphor as early as 1769 to draw parallels to their own conflict with Great Britain. Quoting from Micah 4:4—“Every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid”—Americans articulated explicit connections between men’s domestic authority and the aims of the patriot cause.[2] The experience of war during the American Revolution, however, gave new immediacy to these concerns.

War made American households more permeable and more precarious. This was especially true in cities occupied by the British army, where the presence of thousands of occupying soldiers disrupted the rhythms and routines of urban life. Troops drilled in public spaces. Civilians were forced to adhere to curfews timed to military schedules. Drunken and rowdy soldiers filled city streets. Interior spaces offered little refuge. Civilians were often victims of robbery or plunder. Officers and soldiers regularly appeared at the door requisitioning provisions or requesting quarters. Anything made of wood was liable to being torn down for kindling. Under military occupation the routines of daily life took on new levels of danger, especially for female civilians, as they attempted to continue their lives and domestic responsibilities amidst the chaos of the occupied city.

For American men, occupation brought different kinds of danger. Opponents to British rule were often exiled or imprisoned. Seeking to avoid this fate, many patriots fled prior to the army’s arrival, trusting in their wives to protect family property and businesses in their absence. Those men that chose to remain experienced a more subtle erosion of their authority within occupied cities, as the British army restructured American homes and resources to facilitate military aims. To be sure, several loyalists benefited from their fidelity to the Crown and gained new levels of authority under British military rule. Other men were more flexible in their allegiances and deployed them strategically to protect their families and property during the conflict.[3] Yet, in many instances, as the British army consolidated their control over American cities, it did so in ways that sublimated American men’s patriarchal authority to that of occupying British forces.[4] In British-occupied cities American men were no longer wholly in charge of their households. Rather, civilian homes and resources were subject, first and foremost, to the needs of the British army.

Examining this domestic experience suggests how war gave new meaning to nascent ideas about domestic privacy.[5]During the American Revolution inhabitants of occupied cities primarily experienced war within their homes and through the lens of domestic concerns. For these people, the Revolution played out most immediately not on the battlefield, but in the total disruption of their cities, homes, and the world that they inhabited. It was evident in the diminished power of American men over their households, in women’s attempts to feed their families and protect precious resources from rapacious armies, in the flight of household laborers both enslaved and free, and in the British officers who appeared at their doors requesting quarter.

Military occupation brought unprecedented disorder to American households and domestic power hierarchies. Wartime correspondence suggests that these disturbances were troubling to many Americans precisely because of how they destabilized power relations within the most intimate of places. As a troubled Henry Drinker wrote to his wife Elizabeth upon learning of the British officer quartered in their Philadelphia home, “Who is it that could urge to be received into my House…How many of such intruders are there and what part of the House do they occupy, & do they demand Food, Firing &c. as well as House-Room[?]”[6]

And so, perhaps it is unsurprising that in the years after the war, as American men reclaimed their households, many of them touted the virtues of privacy as their hard-won right. Domestic tranquility was their just reward for the sacrifices of the war years. Like Washington, they too would enjoy the fruits of independence under their own “vine and fig tree.”

Edward Savage, The West Front of Mount Vernon, c. 1787-1792, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, object number H-2445/B.

These sentiments linked American men’s domestic and national interests—an intersection made clear in a 1788 letter from George Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette.[7] Washington once again employed the oft-used metaphor. Crucially, he linked men’s domestic authority to the liberty of the new American government. Domestic tranquility, Washington suggested, was of both national and personal significance. Just as the security of international trade and peaceful relations in western borderlands contributed to the stability of the new nation, so too did men’s authority over their households. “When every one (under his own vine and fig-tree) shall begin to taste the fruits of freedom,” Washington proclaimed, “then all these blessings (for all these blessings will come) will be referred to the fostering influence of the new government.”[8]

In the years following this exchange, domestic politics became intertwined with formal ones in concrete and tangible ways. The Bill of Rights and its protection of domestic privacy solidified men’s power over their households and dependents.[9] After the turmoil and the invasions of the war years, American men were, at last, secure in their right to home rule—both political and familial—and none could make them afraid.

Lauren Duval is an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma. She is currently working on a book about gender, households, and military occupation during the American Revolution.

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[1] For more on the metaphor and its significance see Daniel L. Dreisbach, “The ‘Vine and Fig Tree’ in George Washington’s Letters: Reflections on a Biblical Motif in the Literature of the American Founding Era,” Anglican and Episcopal History 76, no. 3 (2007): 299–326.

[2] For a good overview of these allusions see Gary Shattuck, “Under His Vine and Fig Tree,” Journal of the American Revolution, June 3, 2014, https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/06/under-his-vine-and-fig-tree/.

[3] Donald F. Johnson, “Ambiguous Allegiances: Urban Loyalties during the American Revolution,” Journal of American History 104, no. 3 (December 1, 2017): 610–631.

[4] For more on how the British army manipulated patriarchal authority as a strategy of governance, see Lauren Duval, “Mastering Charleston: Property and Patriarchy in British-Occupied Charleston, 1780–82,” The William and Mary Quarterly 75, no. 4 (2018): 589–622

[5] For an excellent study of privacy and its roots in the Seven Years War see John Gilbert McCurdy, Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution (Cornell University Press, 2019).

[6] Henry Drinker to Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker, January 25, 1778, Elizabeth and Henry Drinker Letters, 1777-1778, MS 854, Box 1, Folder 14, Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections.

[7] For more on the relationship between masculinity, households, and national interest see Honor Sachs, Home Rule: Households, Manhood, and National Expansion on the Eighteenth-Century Kentucky Frontier (Yale University Press, 2015).

[8] “From George Washington to Lafayette, 18 June 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-06-02-0301. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 6, 1 January 1788 – 23 September 1788, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997, pp. 335–339.]

[9] For more on gendered nature of privacy see Ruth H. Bloch, “The American Revolution, Wife Beating, and the  Emergent Value of Privacy,” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 5, no. 2 (September 25, 2007): 223–251.

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