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Review: Richard Godbeer’s “Sexual Revolution in Early America.”

06 Apr

Published by the Johns Hopkins Press, Richard Godbeer’s 2002 monograph Sexual Revolution in Early America provides an in-depth look into sex and sexuality in the colonial and early national periods of American history.  Using the tools and methodologies of social and cultural history, Godbeer seeks to shine a light on an overlooked theme in American history, early American sexuality.

The bulk of Godbeer’s analysis focuses upon New England and the Puritans, with the occasional foray into Philadelphia, Virginia and the Carolinas.  The work takes in a period of two hundred years, from the years immediately prior to the British settlement of North America in the early seventeenth century, to the period immediately after the Revolutionary War in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Throughout the text, Godbeer argues that during the eighteenth century a new sexual ethos regarding sex and sexual culture emerged in British North America as the result of a culture war that pitted differing conceptions of proper sexual etiquette against one another.  This shift represented a move away from traditional conceptions of sex and society brought to the New World by English colonists toward a more individualistic worldview informed by, and predicated upon, the revolutionary ideology of the late 18th century.[1]  By showing the evolution in American sexual culture, Godbeer challenges conventional wisdom used by contemporary culture warriors that looks to the early years of American society as the exemplar of traditional sexual mores and shows this point-of-view to be little more than a wishful fiction.

Sexual Revolution in Early America begins with an examination of popular attitudes toward pre-marital sex, the sexual proclivities of exotic natives of the uncivilized New World, and inter-racial sexual relations as portrayed through English high and literary culture in the years immediately before permanent British colonization of North America.  Godbeer’s use of theses accounts works to show that these concerns were emerging but does little to show that these pre-conceptions were normative or even widespread in English society of the period.  Despite this shortfall, this small introductory section provides a foundation that highlights the contested nature of sexuality in early seventeenth century English society, and the existence of a multi-faceted discourse regarding sexual mores.[2]

Godbeer moves the focus of the discussion in the first part of the book to New England and its most famous inhabitants: the Puritans.  Here Godbeer challenges the traditional notion of the Puritans that dominates the modern mind, by showing them to be highly sexual beings exhibiting many of the same sexual foibles as modern Americans.  Furthermore, even the small group of Puritans who evangelized regarding sexuality were concerned not with controlling all sexual activity but with delineating licit and illicit behaviors and relations; relations then enforced through a punitive legal system and societal pressure.  This pressure by Puritan moral evangelists to enforce a rigorous moral code in a heterogeneous society is the first of the sexual revolutions in Godbeer’s account.

The second of the books three parts moves the narrative to the southern colonies, focusing heavily on the Carolinas and the special circumstances that many early settlers found themselves.  Many of those who lived on the border between civilization and the untamed wilderness found themselves having to create a new type of moral code suited to their new environment.  This pragmatic and unorthodox approach to sexual morality was in many cases in direct opposition to the prevailing religious and civil notions of correct behavior.  Religious and civil powers regulated licit sexual behaviors in an attempt to provide order in chaos.  Worries of miscegenation and its affects on English civility and civilization provided much of the impetus for a new set of mores—especially after the move from a society with slaves to a slave society—while the serial monogamy and seeming licentiousness of these frontiersmen and women spoke of a breakdown of civil society itself.  It is in this region that Godbeer first sees the identification of womanhood with virtuousness that would become a popular trope as the colonies moved toward independence and the new ideology of republicanism took shape.

In the third and final section of the text, Godbeer argues that with the declension of Puritan ecclesiastic power and the increasing complexity of civil society, the power of the state/church to enforce its own brand of sexual morality waned as other matters took legal precedence.  A moral code that had once been the purview of the legal system now relied more on the sanction of society to enforce sexual ethics.  A consequence of this move was that as society changed so to did the ideas about proper sexual etiquette.  As revolutionary ideas swept the colonies and the rhetoric of individual freedom seized the imaginations of the citizenry, especially those who lived in the urban north.  This philosophy of individual liberty clashed with the emerging concept of virtuous womanhood that came to the fore during and after the Revolutionary War.

The evidence mustered by Godbeer supports his thesis well.  The historian uses a wide variety of primary source material; court transcripts, plays and other fictional works, almanacs, newspapers, diaries, and sermons.   By highlighting a recurring theme of tension and conflict in American sexual history, Godbeer successfully shows that sexuality has always been a contentious issue in American society while undermining long-held but erroneous conceptions of the early American people’s and their attitudes toward sex.  Sexual Revolution in America successfully casts aside the stereotype of the Puritan, replacing the dull, staid, highly religious citizenry for a more nuanced vision that was intimately concerned with “proper” sexual relations.

One weakness is Godbeer’s almost exclusive focus on the British colonies of North America fails to account for the fact that during the colonial period people’s from all over Europe settled in what would become the United States.  As Alan Taylor argues so well in his 2002 monograph, American Colonies, these immigrants brought with them a wide variety of cultural and religious forms, which must surely have included culturally specific attitudes toward sex and sexuality.  By focusing so heavily on the English—and specifically the Puritans—these other cultures influence on the evolution of American society are seemingly discounted by Godbeer.

This book should benefit those with an interest in early colonial North America or human sexuality in history.  For the student of history, Sexual Revolution in Early America could be used as a starting point for a more comprehensive account of American sexuality by examining the whether the sexual attitudes of the German, Dutch, French and other non-Anglo colonists influenced American attitudes toward sex and sexuality.


[1] Richard Godbeer, Sexual Revolution in Early America (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). 9-10.

[2] Godbeer, 1-4.

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Posted by on April 6, 2013 in History, non-fiction, US History

 

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