Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

OI Books: The Emergence of a Field

· July 16th, 2018 · No Comments

Today’s post is part of our series marking the 75th anniversary of the Omohundro Institute by exploring the OI books that have had an impact on a scholar’s life.

by Anna Mae Duane

I had just finished an exhilarating but exhausting first year at the University of Connecticut and was petrified about turning my dissertation into a book. It had been an incredible stroke of luck to land at UConn, and it seemed particularly miraculous in light of how my dissertation project had perplexed many of the hiring committees I had met the previous year. My work focused on how the visceral emotional response to child-victims worked as a political force in colonial and early republican America. In 2003, few people in early American studies saw children as something that could or should be analyzed. How, I was asked again and again, could the early American child be a historically legible factor in political theory and action? Children were too innocent, too incompetent, and (perhaps most important for someone who needed to land a peer-reviewed book contract within the next three years) too inaccessible to write about with any real rigor.

Then Holly Brewer’s By Birth or Consent came out. The book was a welcome revelation: an impeccably researched, rigorously structured text that insisted children were at the heart of the cataclysmic shifts in governmental authority that enabled the American Revolution, among other things. Altering the requirements for political participation from the vagaries of bloodline to the near-universal access to individual consent is largely seen as one of the great leaps forward in human freedom. As we’ve learned from the work of J.R. Pole, Gordon S. Wood, and others, the shift from status to contract was both a key cause and a profound effect of the Age of Revolution, which would theoretically make political power available to the masses. Yet as Brewer illustrated, to make consent accessible to the many, the process of acquiring it had to be universal, or something close to it. And so for Anglo-American thinkers and legal theorists from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the journey from childhood to adulthood became inextricably intertwined with the newfound political journey from the depths of perpetual subjecthood to the summit of consensual citizenship.

Brewer’s work demonstrated that this great leap forward in personal freedom actually required that children lose what little power they had previously enjoyed. Surveying legal guides and judicial decisions across the Atlantic, Brewer found children’s participation in a variety of legal and social structures. While the idea of electing a thirteen-year-old to the House of Representatives, accepting a will signed by a four-year-old, or assigning jury duty to a fourteen-year-old seem beyond the limits of our twenty-first century credibility, they were, Brewer taught us, considered acceptable in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. The profound paradigm shift from “authority based on birthright to authority based on reasoned consent” reconstituted both “the nature and legitimacy of power”in England, and later in the North American English colonies. This shift thoroughly disempowered children and those who could be credibly compared to children. For many political theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the new form of government they promoted “rested heavily on his or her assumptions about who could exercise reason. Those lacking reason, like children, were rendered unable to consent. As a result they “became unable to make most legal decisions that affected themselves or others” (3). As the American colonies moved towards an ideal of independence, the specter of dependence became a social and legal liability, adding to the growing conception that the child stood for everything a citizen was not. The idea of a child who could credibly weigh in on his own actions or the actions of her government became largely unthinkable.

In my own work, I had been trying to figure how the emotion children elicited generated powerful political effects. Brewer’s emphasis on legal theory demonstrated how power was generated precisely by rendering the emotion children elicit a political liability. In other words, the very things that often make adults protective of children—their vulnerability, their need for care—would become precisely what disqualified children from having a say in how those needs were met. And once the child became legally invisible, those who could be effectively compared to children could also be excluded from the ability to consent. To take just one example, racial slavery—an institution wholly derived from birth status—skipped the needle on the song of Enlightenment childhood, dissolving the boundary between adult and child from which political power was derived. Slavery apologists argued that because enslaved people were somehow naturally dependent, they required the oversight of rational white men. In the logic of the “patriarchal institution,” all enslaved people became legal children. Thus enslaved children, who had no hope of growing up in a legally meaningfully way, became excluded both from the promise of self-government and from the particular care white children could claim.

One of the most exciting aspects of Brewer’s work was how By Birth or Consent expanded its analysis beyond the words of powerful adults who rendered “the child” a theoretical construction. The book’s focus on legal cases provided concrete examples in which the power invested in adults—a power derived from the fact that they are not children—shaped the lives of young people in the courts. As theorists debated whether or not scholars could ever move beyond metaphor to engage “real children, Brewer mined a broad archive to demonstrate precisely how the lives of young people were affected by theories that declared them unable to meaningfully participate in the structures that governed their lives. At a time when many in the field of early American studies declared that the archives contained precious few children, Brewer patiently, methodically revealed that in fact children were central to the most influential conversations about freedom and governance. To ignore the child’s role in the construction of our current governmental structure, she argued, made “it impossible to understand the debates over authority during this period and the transformations in social order and ideology for all of society” (12). Further, to insist on seeing children as inherently unable to consent renders us complicit in an “ahistorical system of values that cover and obscure historical struggles over power” (12). By Birth or Consent demonstrated that ignoring children in the archive was scholarly malpractice, and in so doing, both changed the terms of early American studies and provided a template for the still-emergent field of Childhood Studies.

This past month, I’ve found myself returning to Brewer’s powerful depiction of the methodical disenfranchising of children. Her work has become painfully relevant as the news regales us with horrifying evidence of how the U.S. government currently deploys the legal and physical vulnerability of immigrant children to fortify a particularly toxic conception of American strength and independence. In response to the visceral emotions these images of neglected and abused children exert, those in power have exasperatedly demanded reason and rationality. As Facebook, Twitter, and the New York Times host raging debates about the need for civility in response to the power exerted over vulnerable children and families, Brewer’s work reminds us that the power structure of the American government itself was built on the idea that giving children a political voice would threaten the sovereignty of the adults in charge. Brewer taught us that our legal system was based on the premise that freedom was the opposite of childhood. The events of 2018 are schooling us in the devastating consequences of failing to reckon with that injustice.

Anna Mae Duane (@annamaeduane) is Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut. She is the author or editor of four books on childhood, race and early America. Her newest book Educated for Freedom: Two Slave-born Schoolboys who Changed a Nation is under contract with New York University Press.

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