Why We Doubt Capable Children: Constructing Childhood in the Revolutionary Era

Mann_Page_Elizabeth_Page_John_Wollaston“My friends and I might still be 11, and we might still be in elementary school, but we know . . . that we have seven short years until we too have the right to vote.”[1] Speaking at the March for Our Lives event, 11-year old Naomi Wadler eloquently reminded us that childhood is ephemeral. Since they are future voters, she warned Capitol Hill to take the words, emotions, and pleas of children seriously. In many ways, she was also speaking to Florida State Representative Elizabeth Porter who recently exclaimed, “The adults make the law because we have the age, we has [sic] the wisdom, and we have the experience.”[2] For many like Rep. Porter, there has been something disturbing in this moment of youth activism. It cuts to the core of social stability based on the patriarchal family order—that children are subordinate, passive members of society. We inherited this idea from the eighteenth-century revolutionary era, a point in time when age became a main determinant in who could be considered a citizen and an adult.

As a historian of childhood and youth, I’ve been asked over the past several weeks to weigh in on how people in the past understood and defined childhood. That question fits with one of my primary goals as a new Juntoist—to build awareness of, and create meaningful conversations around, the history of childhood and youth in the early modern Atlantic.

Colonial and European children were usually described according to their relationships to adults and parents.[3] Although historians have rallied against the “myth [that] the children of former times were raised as near slaves by domineering, loveless fathers,”[4] it is well-accepted that between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries there was an increase in parental, specifically paternal, authority. Parent-child relationships were therefore structured around the idea that children were supposed to submit to their parents’ authority at all times. Monarchs, posing as the ultimate patriarch in a state, used this idea to further solidify political power by insisting on his unlimited authority over his royal children—his subjects.[5] This, in turn, had a large impact on both the legal and colloquial definitions of what it meant to be a child.

As a legal category, childhood was expressed as the age of “minority.” This was a temporary category exclusive to non-enslaved, white males.[6] Throughout the French and Spanish empires, a minor was a “young man under the age of 25”[7] who “did not yet have the administration of his own goods.”[8] In early modern England and British North America, minority was restricted anywhere below 21 or 25 years of age. In all of these regions, the key to minority was the lack of a legal identity. As a minor, boys were incapable of negotiating contracts or making other financial decisions independent of a guardian, parent, or master. They also could not serve in local governments before achieving majority status, nor could they own property.

Despite their legal codification, these ages mattered little in popular consciousness or in practice throughout much of the early modern period. Instead, childhood and adulthood were malleable, often based upon individual experiences, especially economic circumstances. If a young man failed to sufficiently provide for himself, he could have his childhood extended. For example, in early modern France, parents could send their offspring to juvenile detention centers for idleness or squandering their finances even after the child was 25.[9] Conversely, a young man could shorten minority if he was able to establish himself early. For instance, a sixteen-year-old boy who was the inheritor of a large estate could have been deemed an adult upon his father’s death even if he had yet to reach the age of majority. Similarly, a successful young merchant under 25 would have been able to negotiate contracts on his own, essentially transitioning to majority, simply because he ran a prosperous business. In these cases, it was the ability of a young man to achieve economic solvency that was much more important to the attainment of majority than a certain age.

But an important shift occurred in how childhood and adulthood were legally and colloquially defined during the last half of the eighteenth century, starting in early America. As British North America experimented with representative government, moving away from subjecthood and toward citizenship, clearer laws regarding who could be a citizen, and along with it, an adult, were drawn. As Holly Brewer argues in By Birth or Consent,[10] the biggest difference between a subject and citizen rested on the notion of consent. Only someone who possessed reason could consent. Children lacked the ability to reason and, therefore, were unable to consent. Adulthood, then, was marked by the exercise of reasoned consent.

Embedded within the notion of reasoned consent was the belief that the older someone was, the more qualified they were to serve in the early government. The U.S. Constitution mandated clear guidelines, based upon age instead of on social rank, for who could be elected to office. 21 was set as the legal age to vote and the moment a “child came of age.”[11] Originally, this was also the age at which a citizen could be elected to the House of Representatives. But at the Federal Constitutional Convention, Virginia’s George Mason insisted that the age requirement for serving in the House be raised to 25 to account for the transitional period between “manag[ing] one’s own affairs and managing the affairs of a great nation.”[12] Men who had reached thirty years old could run for the Senate. The highest office in the land, the Presidency, was restricted for the oldest members of society—those who had reached at least 35 years old.  Enmeshed in these age restrictions was the understanding that adulthood was tied to a specific age and that someone who accrued years gained knowledge, wisdom, and experience.

These age regulations upheld an idealized belief in meritocracy that the French Republic borrowed in the last decade of the eighteenth century. Despite citizens overthrowing patriarchal tyrannies in both the United States and France, Americans and the French strengthened patriarchal control based upon age with the association of majority and citizenship. Since the nascent nation depended on well educated individuals to lead, it was parents’ responsibility to formally educate their children in preparation for attaining full citizenship rights.[13] Those unable to receive an education and express consent, including the poor, women, and slaves, were all unable to attain the full rights of a citizen. As such, they were relegated to the perpetual status of a child or a “minor.” They remained legally, economically, and socially dependent on a patriarch. This strengthened the role of the patriarchal family, indicating that even within nations based upon citizenship and consent, there was still a hierarchy of obligation. In this case, hierarchy was based upon sex, race, age, and the attainment of reason.

Although we have drastically revised what being a “U.S. citizen” means over the past 242 years, one of the constants that remains is an age requirement to achieve all the rights granted to, and responsibilities required of, a citizen. Our current age of majority is set at age 18. It is not a coincidence that this is the age at which most people will have completed a high school education. The idea that childhood is a formative period of development was not a new one to early Americans, but the idea that it can be a period to inculcate ideas regarding citizenship was. It managed to perpetuate Locke’s idea that “experience brings reason.”[14] In other words, with age comes wisdom. This is not much different from the idea that Rep. Porter proclaimed. But when capable children like Naomi Walder demand to be heard and speak with reason, intelligence, and wisdom, it seems to challenge a fundamental aspect of American society. As much as we have attempted to move beyond the patriarchal family model, we have yet to reject the idea that age gives authority.

We are inheritors of the eighteenth-century belief that one’s childhood is meant for forging a legal and political identity that cannot be expressed until the age of majority. There is much more to discuss regarding how childhood was defined, understood, internalized, and evolved across gendered, racial, and ethnic lines in the early modern Atlantic. But, this is a small step to help contextualize why some seem so bothered by children expressing agency.


[1] Krystin Arneson, “11-Year-Old Naomi Wadler Gave One of the Most Powerful Speeches at the March for Our Lives,” Glamour, March 24, 2018, https://www.glamour.com/story/naomi-wadler-gave-one-of-the-most-powerful-speeches-at-the-march-for-our-lives

[2] Sara Boboltz, “Florida Lawmaker on School Shooting Survivors: ‘Adults Make the Laws,’” March 7, 2018, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/elizabeth-porter-gun-control-parkland-survivors_us_5aa0801ae4b0e9381c152672

[3] Indigenous populations held different societal structures and were not bound by the European patriarchal models.

[4] Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 171.

[5] Sarah Hanley coined the term “family-state compact” to argue that the French monarchy and the Parlement de Paris sought to consolidate political power through the legal regulation of all family matters from marriage to inheritance. The compact provided “a formidable family model of socioeconomic authority” which in turn “influenced state political power.” Sarah Hanley, “Engendering the State: Family Formation and State Building in Early Modern France,” French Historical Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring 1989), 4-27: 9, 11.  See also: Suzanne Desan, The Family on Trial in the French Revolution (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007); Christopher Corley, “Gender, Kin, and Guardianship in Early Modern Burgundy,” in Family, Gender, and Law in Early Modern France, Suzanne Desan and Jeffrey Merrick, eds. (Pennsylvania Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Matthew Gerber, Bastards: Politics, Family, and Law in Early Modern France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[6] Slavery studies is a particularly rich subfield within the history of childhood and youth that is constantly challenging us to reexamine the confines of Atlantic childhood, subordination, and minority status. See: Anna Mae Duane, ed., Child Slavery before and after Emancipation: An Argument for Child-Centered Slavery Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2017),

[7] Across the Spanish empire, patria potestad (paternal authority or guardianship) lasted until age 25.  See Bianca Premo, Children of the Father King: Youth, Authority, and Legal Minority in Colonial Lima (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Grace E Coolidge, Guardianship, Gender, and the Nobility in Early Modern Spain (Routledge, 2016).

[8] Antoine Furetière, Le dictionnaire universel (The Hague: Arnout et Reinier Leers, 1694) III: s.v. “minorité.”

[9] Julia M Gossard, “Breaking a Child’s Will: Eighteenth-Century Parisian Juvenile Detention Centers,” French Historical Studies, forthcoming publication.

[10] Holly Brewer, By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (Chapel Hill, NC: The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and the University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

[11] The 26th Amendment in 1971 lowered the voting age to 18.

[12] History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, “Constitutional Qualifications,” http://history.house.gov/Institution/Origins-Development/Constitutional-Qualifications/ (April 12, 2018)

[13] Brewer, By Birth or Consent, 92-3.

[14] Brewer, By Birth or Consent, 96.

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  1. Pingback: Why We Doubt Capable Children: Constructing Childhood in the Revolutionary Era – Daily History Reader

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