J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Adolescent Rebellion in Colonial America?

Back when I was writing about how Christopher Seider, Edward Garrick, and other lads helped to participate in and precipitate the political violence of early 1770, a couple of Boston 1775 readers sent me interesting questions about general adolescent behavior of the time. xAlpha wrote:

did kids and teens rebel in the 18th century too? Did they play Beethoven (I suppose that might be a little late in history) loudly on their violins to piss off their Baroque-loving parents?

I do know there wasn't much of an adolescence phase in those days, though. You hit puberty, got married, and started doing work, so maybe they never had time to be bored and restless.
I think that for most eighteenth-century boys the sequence of passages went this way: going to work at or before age fourteen, going through puberty around the same time (biologically, the changes probably came later than they do now), heading out on your own after twenty-one, establishing yourself in your profession, and finally marrying in the late twenties. Some boys got to continue their education in college, which also started at age fourteen, but they were a very small minority, and they still had to work at their studies.

Such work kept young fellows busy, so they didn’t have a lot of time to call their own. And since they were basically working for room, board, and one suit of good clothes a year, they didn’t have money to spend on things that might annoy adults. (See this article from Colonial Williamsburg on apprenticeships for more detail.) So the opportunities for rebellion were there, but limited.

Furthermore, most boys were sent to masters outside their immediate families. In fact, the society encouraged parents to bind out their children (especially boys) so as to avoid treating them too leniently. A master was expected to act in loco parentis, but also to be stricter than real parents. That meant, I think, that most adolescent rebellion took the form of rebelling against the authority of the master, not against their parents.

In Traits of the Tea Party, based largely on the memories of shoemaker George R. T. Hewes, Benjamin Bussey Thatcher wrote of:
the pranks of...apprentices—a class of persons whose science it seems to have been in those days to harass their masters as much as they possibly could without getting flogged for it
The anecdote that follows starts with Hewes and a friend staying out past the house curfew. Even though all they did was make themselves coffee and toast in the house of the friend’s father, on their return their master promised to whip them immediately after he got dressed. While he was out of the room, they set a bunch of metal pots and pans in front of the door. As the master came back through—tripping, clanging, and cursing—the boys escaped to their bedroom and locked the door. Then before the next workday dawned, Hewes reported, he and his friend left that master for good.

Another former Boston apprentice who left a detailed autobiography was Benjamin Franklin. He described going to his father to complain about his employer—who was also his older brother James:
Though a brother, he considered himself as my master, and me as his apprentice, and accordingly, expected the same services from me as he would from another, while I thought he demean’d me too much in some he requir’d of me, who from a brother expected more indulgence.

Our disputes were often brought before our father, and I fancy I was either generally in the right, or else a better pleader, because the judgment was generally in my favor. But my brother was passionate, and had often beaten me, which I took extreamly amiss; and, thinking my apprenticeship very tedious, I was continually wishing for some opportunity of shortening it, which at length offered in a manner unexpected.
Benjamin couldn’t have been an easy apprentice. He was already the smartest fellow in the room, and willful; see my posting about when he caused trouble in the kitchen by becoming a vegetarian. And like Hewes, after a while Benjamin simply left, running off to Philadelphia.

Another young printer, Isaiah Thomas, hightailed it to Halifax in his mid-teens. Shoemaker Hewes tried to enlist in the army and navy during the French & Indian War, and several teenagers used that route out of their apprenticeships during the Revolution. Indeed, in the few memoirs we have that discuss a man’s childhood in detail, such wanderlust is a fairly common theme, probably a manifestation of what we now call adolescent rebellion.

TOMORROW: The political side of adolescent rebellion.

1 comment:

Robert S. Paul said...

Hey! Thanks for quouting me and the link. And double-thanks for answering my question.

I look forward to the rest.