by Richard Godbeer
Every generation thinks it invented sex, and Americans may be particularly loath to see their parents and grandparents as sexual beings. Richard Godbeer’s new book pulls back the chamber curtains on the sexual lives of our cultural if not strictly genealogical forebears. While Sexual Revolution in Early America doesn’t quite deliver on its promise to uncover revolutionary sexual practices and beliefs, it does offer a generously documented, richly detailed picture of sex in three different early American cultures: the Puritans of 17th-century New Eng-land, colonists in late 17th- and early 18th-century Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and the Carolinas, and revolutionary-era Philadelphia. Drawing fine distinctions of class, race, geography, religion, and time period, Godbeer sacrifices big ideas for layered exposition, which will leave some readers frustrated by his abstention from speculation and theorizing. But if the worst thing you can say about a book is that it made you think, left you with lists of questions to ponder, and had you constantly flipping to the endnotes for a lead on the next book to read, then it’s a successful piece of highly readable scholarship.
Drawing from a wide array of sources including court records, journals, sermons, and literary works, Godbeer seeks to illuminate three central themes: “an ongoing struggle among different versions of sexual morality; the role of sex in fostering and combating a profound fear of cultural debasement in the New World; and the interplay of sexual with political revolution.” In each of the three early-American cultures, he identifies a sexual revolution. For the Puritans this took the form of imposing sexual codes based on their religious beliefs on the colonial population at large. In the southern regions of British America, what takes place is a revolution of cultural debasement. Finally, Godbeer examines the interplay between political revolution and contested ideas about increased personal and sexual liberty.
Godbeer’s nuanced and often amusing portrait of sex in the early New England colonies will surprise readers who have only encountered Puritans as grim killjoys in the fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Puritans are much more complicated than the stereotypes of course, as scholars such as Perry Miller, Edmund Morgan, and Sacvan Berkovich have shown. Godbeer doesn’t add new insights to contemporary understandings of Puritan culture as paradoxical and conflicted. But his work enriches current scholarship by adding a wealth of detail about the private lives of the colonists as they struggled to negotiate the contradictions between Puritan orthodoxy on the one hand, and the more pragmatic folk mores emerging from the material conditions of their lives on the other hand. At the very least, the book will make readers think twice when they accuse someone of being “puritanical.” That’s not the word that first comes to mind for the hapless Moses Taylor, who in 1679 was convicted of “obscene carriages” after having a few beers at the Roxbury tavern and “drawing out his yard in the presence of many persons.” Perhaps inspired by Taylor’s performance, Samuel Terry of Springfield “was seen on the Sabbath ‘standing with his face to the meetinghouse wall near the corner of the meetinghouse next [to] the street chafing his yard to provoke lust, even in sermon time.” The Puritans, though deeply hostile to unsanctioned forms of sex, were not prudes, and their lives were informed by a constant negotiation between the orthodox views of sex that existed simultaneously with more pragmatic popular views.
Godbeer’s analysis seems less assured when he shifts the focus to sex in the early 18th-century Virginia and Carolina colonies. While unlicensed sexual behaviors occurred in all the colonies, including Puritan New England, “they were much more prevalent in those regions of British America where the guiding hands of minister and magistrate were ineffective or nonexistent among white settlers.” There are several factors that account for southern governments’ relatively difficult time regulating sexual mores: “an imbalanced sex ratio and the inability of most servants to marry, scattered settlement, a much less godly population, the lack of governmental institutions in recently settled areas, and a chronic shortage of clerics.”
One of the “highly unconventional” features of the Chesapeake colonies, as opposed to their New England counterparts, is that they were overwhelmingly male. Godbeer describes a Jamestown settlement remarkably different from that cute little wooden fenced fort containing brave buckskin-clad colonists that I read about and visited as an elementary student in the Virginia public schools. The 104 men and boys who settled Jamestown in 1607 had no access to sexual relations with English women, nor does the research, according to Godbeer, support the hypothesis that they had sexual contacts with Indian woman. “It seems difficult to believe that a group of young, and notoriously unbridled men re-mained celibate for an extended period of time.” In response to these unusual circumstances, they must have turned to each other. Godbeer asserts that “settlers in seventeenth-century Chesapeake often paired off to form all-male households, living and working together.” Acknowledging that many if not all of these couplings would have a sexual dimension, he concludes that “it seems reasonable to assume that much of the sex that took place in the first few years of settlement in the south was sodomitical.” But that’s about as far as he’s willing to go. I wanted to know more: How were these households arranged? Where is the cultural record of this episode in Virginia history? How would it have affected succeeding generations of colonists’ attitudes toward homosexuality? Did men simply abandon their male partners when women arrived in the colony, or did the two kinds of households exist simultaneously? Did the availability of women delegitimize all-male relationships?
But for all the surprising evidence he evinces, Godbeer doesn’t advance a thesis that addresses these and other questions. I also wanted to know, for example, how the colonists’ cultures of origin affected their private and public attitudes about sex. Were those who chose (to the extent that one had that much choice at all) to settle in Virginia different kinds of people than those who settled in the Carolinas? Did these differences have lasting effects? God-beer doesn’t even try to answer these questions, but those who wish to pursue them will do well to begin with this amply documented cultural history.
The final section of Sexual Revolution in Early America takes us to burgeoning Philadelphia in the years surrounding the Revolutionary War. Here Godbeer begins with the quite un-revolutionary thesis that the rhetoric of revolution affected sexual beliefs and practices as well as politics. In the second half of the 18th century “the slackening of parental control paved the way for a less restrictive sexual climate, which then seems to have been further encouraged by the spirit and disruptive impact of the American Revolution.” In Philadelphia and other growing urban centers, looser standards for sexual conduct coincide with the weakening and dispersal of Puritan authority, thus requiring new kinds of regulation.
The most interesting plank in the argument has to do with the way attitudes about sex began to differentiate by gender. Drawing on both literary and legal texts, he “examines the persistence of a regulatory ethos in eighteenth-century New England and also the sexual culture that it sought to govern.” This regulatory ethos shifted the burden of moral authority to the female body and while it aimed on the one hand to protect young women from pregnancy and abandonment in a community too diffuse to protect them, it also constructed the female body as the bulwark against a “natural” and unrestrainable male desire. Because revolutionary-era “writers argued that private and public virtue were closely intertwined,” women be-came the vessel in which both private and public virtue were contained. A young woman of the period was exposed to stories in literature and the press that argued for the civic importance of her personal chastity. Godbeer ex-plains: “Women could and must ensure moral order by using their hold over men to shape their conduct as suitors, husbands, fathers, and citizens. Heightened concern for the physical safety and moral welfare of women in the new republic was bound up with widespread discussion of their mission to guide men away from corrupt political impulses; women had to be kept inviolate because so much rested upon their integrity.”
Godbeer seems unwilling to leave the safe harbor of documents for the murkier waters of big, speculative ideas, and, though a frustrating weakness, it’s not a fatal one. Sexual Revolution in Early America can help ground and enrich contemporary debates about sex in 21st -century America by reminding us that since our very beginnings sexual behaviors have existed in a space bounded by both liberatory and regulatory rhetoric and practices. Despite the purity and passion of the advocates, one doesn’t “solve the problem” of unlicensed sex, but understanding the multivalent historical causes is certainly a more productive and nuanced way to proceed in the kinds of debates with which we seem preoccupied—and in which we also seem permanently mired, such as teen pregnancy, single-motherhood, and homosexual marriage.
Elisabeth H. Piedmont-Marton is a writer who lives in Austin and an assistant professor of English at Southwestern University.