Up or Out in the Colonies

Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America.

Once upon a time in America, sex was everybody’s business. Consider the 18th-century Massachusetts couple of Joel and Susannah Richardson. During their open divorce proceedings, Susannah saw fit to thoroughly dismantle her husband’s manhood. Not only was her own account of Joel’s sexual incapacity brutally honest (“Joel was not a man and God knew it”), but reams of testimony followed from townsmen who seemed to know equally well that Joel was not, in the crude parlance of the day, “a glorious hang.” The local doctor showed up at the trial to declare his patient’s “parts of generation” to be “utterly incapable of procreation.” A neighbor testified having once heard Susannah complain that Joel’s penis was “not enough to make a mark in a dish of meal.” As for the couple’s kids, Susannah insisted that Joel “had no business with the children for they were none of his.” The outcome of the trial went unrecorded, but either way it was a humiliating day for the poor farmer from Woburn, Massachusetts.

As Thomas A. Foster demonstrates in his fascinating new book Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man, the ritualistic emasculation of Joel Richardson was no anomaly. In fact, public vigilance over sexual behavior played a critical social role in 18th-century American life. As a pre-industrial colonial outpost that agonized over stability, self-mastery, and republican virtue, early America was a place were size mattered. After all, any deviation from the dominant sexual standard—a patriarchal model rooted in marital monogamy, heterosexuality, self-control, and sexual vigor—posed an insidious threat to the precarious civilization that English colonists were forging in wilderness. Adultery, fornication, same-sex relations, bachelorhood, interracial sex, and, as Joel knew all to well, sexual incapacity were dire enough threats to the patriarchal juggernaut to clog the court records with testimony that Foster, a DePaul University historian, has spent the last 10 years studying. His findings, while not always presented in the clearest manner, are amazing.

Given the social significance of normative sexuality in the early republic, the elite white men entrusted with the task of preserving patriarchal relations spent considerable time and effort hammering down the nail that stuck up. Foster not only uncovers hundreds of examples of men and women being hauled into court for so-called deviant behavior, but—in one of the book’s many unexpected attributes—he thoroughly relishes the language that early Americans used to convey their own sexual experiences, tribulations, and opinions. When John Amee, an Indian, threatened to “nok” one Elizabeth Tyler, Tyler mockingly asked if he was going to “nok her with a hatchet or hammer,” to which Amee responded that “he would nok her with his prick.” Women brought to orgasm (something believed at the time to be necessary for procreation) could thank their hardworking patriarchs for granting them “all due benevolence.” Men charged with sexual assault sought refuge in the excuse that their “libidinous faculties” succumbed to what one victim called “the Rage of his Lust.” Others proudly refused to bow to their “extreme lust,” articulating their aggressive sexuality in crude doggerel:

Tis nobler like a lion to invadeWhen appetite directs, and seize my preyThan to wait tamely, like begging dog,Till dull consent throws out the scrapsof love.

Yet others were matter of fact about their motives, as was one defendant who simply stated in his defense that “god had left him” when he seduced a young girl. Such rich rhetorical material makes it clear that Foster chose his evidence with an eye toward not only illuminating readers, but—rarity of rarities in the historical profession—entertaining them as well.

Given the narrow scope of proper sexual behavior in early America, and given the inherent challenges involved in rooting out deviance, colonial patriarchs relied heavily on innuendo and arbitrary stereotyping to finger transgressors. If, as Foster explains, “the ideal man was married, strong, and controlled,” then woe to the dandyish bachelor. Here was a man who, in a social milieu that rewarded marital masculinity, was vulnerable to the most socially consequential accusations (especially if he was thin and enjoyed luxury goods). An authority no less lugubrious in temper than Cotton Mather, for example, drew a direct connection between “licentious masturbators” and effete bachelors when he opined that a single man given over to the habit of pleasuring himself was “reduced into a woeful consumption; his visage Pale and Leane, and Stomach depraved, and his depauperated Blood fill’d with acid, and acrid particles.” If the unmarried fop was not a chronic masturbator, then there was always the good chance that he was, as one minister put it, “amongst the sodomites,” a designation that stressed his preference for “strange flesh”—not only that other men and family relations but, alas, farm animals.

Pity not only the skinny white guy for being skinny, but also the black man for being black. Foster writes, “[a]s a man of unbridled sexual energy, [the black man] posed a threat to women and girls and to white men’s patriarchal prerogatives.” Black men were disproportionately charged and convicted of rape, dogged so tenaciously by the stereotype of rapacious sexual predator that New Englanders advocated making an added spectacle of their execution. In a Boston rape case that centered on a black man, a newspaper noted that “it is earnestly desired by many, that his body may be hanged in a Chain, either upon the Neck or some other conspicuous place, to deter all, but especially the insolent Tribe of Blacks from the like wicked Attempts of the Future.” Chillingly, the people got what they wanted.

While much of Foster’s book is a compendium of engaging cases involving sexual deviance, Foster does offer, albeit suggestively, a profoundly significant interpretation. Whereas historians and philosophers conventionally argued that before the rise of modernism sexuality was determined by actions rather than identity (this is mainly Michel Foucault’s position), Foster advances the idea that, to the contrary, sexuality was about identity even in the 18th century. His reading of the evidence on this point is impressively nuanced. Noting how several men who had to defend themselves against charges of sodomy did so by highlighting their natural heterosexual predispositions, Foster reveals that these men were appealing to their inherent sexuality—not their actions—as an indication of the “total man.” The logic being, “I’m straight, so I could never do that.” Likewise, through a creative, if extenuated, interpretation of an anti-Masonic poem published in the newspaper, one that equated the Masons’ secretive character with their fondness for same-sex sex, Foster ventures the idea that “[t]he Freemasons’ supposed rituals and celebratory practices of anal penetration perverted the norms of fraternal bonding by blurring the distinction between male friendship and loyalty and sexual intimacy.” If I read this analysis properly, Foster conflates sexuality with such fundamental aspects of the “total Man” as friendship and loyalty to indicate that colonial Americans did not actively separate sexual acts from the larger components of a man’s identity. In other words, these men were not being impugned with practicing sodomy, they were sodomites.

A couple of quibbles. It probably goes without saying that this book is for a wide audience. While much of Foster’s prose is appropriate for this larger readership, he sometimes slips upon poorly edited patches of jargon. Take this one: “As a foil for normative manhood, then, the foppish bachelor was not merely a figure who condensed norms of social comportment by negation.” Not a huge problem, but still…

The only other issue is that in a cultural history of this caliber, it is shame that the publisher did not pony up for a single image. The omission is particularly maddening as Foster describes the image attached to the anti-Mason poem mentioned above: “The novelty of the engraving in itself would have drawn the attention of readers; the content of the image must have been doubly shocking. It depicted two smiling men, one bent over with his pants pulled down to retrieve a treenail, or wooden peg, the other, with a hammer raised over head, ready to strike.” This image, as well as dozens of others, would have effectively complemented this superb study. Plus, this is one, after all, where you could honestly say you were looking at it for the writing.

Contributing writer James E. McWilliams lives in Austin.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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Published at 12:00 am CST