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BOOKS & THE CULTURE The Founding Fathers BY ELISABETH H. PIEDMONT-MARTON Sexual Revolution in Early America by Richard Godbeer Johns Hopkins University Press 448 pages, $34.95 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 England, colonists in late 17thand 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 buckskinclad 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 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11/8/02