A historian looks at the lives of ordinary people in 18th-century America

September 05, 1993|By Bruce Clayton


Stephanie Grauman Wolf


304 pages. $28 "They live in so happy a Climate, and have so fertile a Soil, that no body is poor enough to beg, or want Food." Such was among the trumpeting of Robert Beverley, Governor of Virginia, in 1705. His was the confident voice of Chesapeake Bay tobacco growers; of tidewater planters all the way down the eastern coast to Charleston, S.C.; of up-and-coming Philadelphia Quakers; and of merchants making good in Boston, New York and later Baltimore, the nation's third-largest city by 1776.

There was a time (not all that long ago) when historians lived in a happy climate of opinion that allowed them to fix their eyes on the goings and comings of such folks -- the well-off, the well-bred, the well-read, those with plenty of bread and a substantial roof over their heads. Blacks, American Indians, women, the poor (in spirit and in pocket), the young and the old were ignored and, in time, forgotten.

No more. Stephanie Grauman Wolf's "As Various as Their Land" is a very good example of the new history that has captured much of the academic writing about the past. Dr. Wolf, a recognized authority on early America at the University of Pennsylvania, seeks to describe the ways of ordinary people. She doesn't practice the silly old "pots and pans" social history of a few decades back. Rather, she explores the way institutions and customs -- the family, the workplace, child-rearing, the role of women, food, entertainment, religious forms and the like -- reveal the web of life in 18th-century America.

Dr. Wolf's findings -- based on her own research and the work of many others -- pour ice water on any romantic notion of the century as an orderly "age of reason" or Enlightenment. Rational ideas wormed their way into the culture. Commitment to public education grew; parenting became more humane, religion less emotional; marriage for love started to become a sacred right; the insane and infirm were to be shown more compassion.

But for most folks it was a life mainly of survival. Slaves lost ground as the century wore on. Humanitarians and intellectuals might quote Montesquieu's remark "that all black persons might be slaves is as ridiculous as . . . that all redhaired persons should be hanged." But slavery wasn't softened: In the plantation culture of the Chesapeake Bay, Dr. Wolf contends, where tobacco was "planted in every conceivable spot, even along the public pathways," slaves worked longer hours and spent more days in the field at the end of the century than at the beginning.

American Indians were shoved further away, both physically and psychologically, by the Europeans who were starting to call themselves Americans. Whites were "civilized" and "cultured," whereas Indians were "primitive" and "savage." As myths abounded, Indians were dismissed as nomads, their accomplishments demeaned -- even as their "ubiquitous rows of ripening corn stood as silent tributes to Native Americans' agricultural ability."

Dr. Wolf finds much to admire in the new, sturdy American face. But pornography, gambling, prostitution, rowdy college youth, bearbaiting, a fascination with cockfighting and a rude shoulder to the old and poor also characterized civilized white society. Poverty plagued the new society and, then as now, a goodly percentage of the poor were old, worn-out people.

Was it a moral time, an age of chastity? No, Dr. Wolf writes. By the time of the American Revolution, fully one-third of all blushing brides were pregnant when they married. And they were the ones that resisted the allure of abortion, a common -- if dangerous -- practice in those days but one that received "no special strictures -- either religious or moral."

Our forebears were quite fond of -- and some probably addicted to -- strong drink. For all classes, Dr. Wolf reports, drinking "began at breakfast and continued throughout the day. Doctors prescribed alcohol of all types for all sorts of medical problems: beer for nursing mothers, wine for intestinal trouble or consumption [tuberculosis], brandy for pain." Employers dispensed alcohol liberally, in the morning and the afternoon. As one worker put it, his mates spent most of their days "mildly glad with liquor."

People turned without self-consciousness to the drug of alcohol for obvious reasons: Life was hard, the workday was long (12 hours was common) and numbing. Only the rich who could afford to build those solid Georgian houses that were coming to dominate the American scene had many comforts. Until well into the century, few homes of poor people had chairs or separate rooms. Privacy, except for the well-to-do, was virtually unknown.

Is Dr. Wolf's story a sad one, a depressing debunking of the past? Not for anyone who has been giving an ear to modern historians or whose own lives would make them immune to rosy views of history. Hers is a sober and sobering tale that reminds us that the present has no monopoly on trials and tribulations. We need to hear that from time to time.

Dr. Clayton is the Harry A. Logan Sr. Professor of History at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.

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