A History of the American Bachelor: Part I – Colonial and Revolutionary America

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 5, 2012 · 37 comments

in Manly Knowledge

Many of you who read the Art of Manliness are bachelors. And if you’re married, well, you were a bachelor once, too. Bachelorhood has become such an ingrained part of the male experience, that we usually don’t give it too much thought except to make jokes about bachelor pads or married men “batching it” when their wives are out of town.

While it might not seem so at first blush, the history of the bachelor in America is complex and truly fascinating. When colonists first settled America, the bachelor as an identity didn’t even exist. But as time passed, bachelors became one of the driving forces in shaping our concept of manliness. In fact, many of the popular ideas we have about manliness today (and that we talk about on the site), emerged out of bachelor culture.

What’s also interesting is that the discussions we’re having about the state of young, single men today are very similar to the discussions our colonial, post-Civil War, and WWII ancestors had as well. As you study the evolution of the bachelor, you’ll see that throughout our country’s history, Americans have had conflicting views about single men.  On the one hand, we’ve seen them as a threat to good society and stigmatized bachelors for not conforming to traditional family life by putting off marriage. On the other hand, Americans have celebrated bachelors as paragons of American individualism and independence and envied their freedom.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring the history of single men in America. Understanding the history of bachelorhood in America will hopefully provide some insights to you on manliness today. Even if that doesn’t happen, it’s just an interesting part of history to know!

Bachelors as Dependents

Up until the 17th century, single men weren’t viewed as a distinct social group. Instead, they were lumped together with women, children, and servants. The English, and subsequently American colonists, didn’t even have a name for young, single men. It wasn’t until the 17th century that colonists started using the term “bachelor” to describe a single man.

However, the word bachelor wasn’t used in the same way as we use the word today. For Colonial Americans, bachelorhood wasn’t solely dependent on your marriage status like it is for us modern folks. You could be a single man, but not be considered a bachelor. Instead, bachelorhood was dependent on a man’s age and whether he owned property.

Colonial Americans, particularly New England colonists, divided men into two groups: masters and dependents. When early American settlers referred to a man as “master” they weren’t necessarily indicating that the man owned slaves. Rather, the status of master meant a man had attained sufficient mastery over himself and in his vocation that he was able to own property and contribute to the community in a significant way. It also meant you were older, perhaps in your 30s or 40s. As we’ll discuss shortly, bachelors were subject to special laws, and there are plenty of examples from early New England settlements where single men who were considered masters, sat on judicial councils that punished other single men for being bachelors.

In contrast to masters, dependents were young, single men who lacked private property and held no responsibilities within the community. These sorts of men held the same position in society as women, children, and servants. Their lack of mastery actually prevented them from being considered men. When writers of the 16th and 17th centuries referred to bachelors, they meant dependent men.

“The plantation can never florish till families be planted and the respect of wives and children fix the people on the soil.” -Sir Edwin Sandy, Treasurer Virginia Company of London, 1620

17th century New England colonists didn’t take too kindly to bachelors. They saw them as a threat to wholesome society and prone to hooliganism; pamphlets printed at the time referred to bachelors as “rogue elephants.” Life in the early colonies was so precarious that cajoling as many members as possible into producing for and contributing to the colony was essential to survival. It was feared that without the stabilizing, civilizing effect thought to be imparted by taking on the responsibility of wife and kids, bachelors would refuse to settle down and would run amok and turn to dabbling in unholy vices. So to combat the bachelor menace, many of the colonies in New England created what were called “Family Rule” laws that required young, single men to continue living with their family until they had established themselves and were married. If a man didn’t have family nearby, he could board with another family. Violators faced stiff fines and even jail time. Despite the draconian laws, some bachelors had the chutzpah to flaunt convention and risk punishment by living alone.

Towards a More Accepted Notion of Bachelorhood

Towards the end of the 1600s, Family Rule laws in New England started to relax and more and more young, single men started living by themselves. While New England communities still frowned on the practice, they didn’t go out of their way to prosecute bachelors for living on their own. The number of bachelors grew to such an extent that Harvard students formed the first bachelor club in 1677 called the “Friday Evening Association of Bachelors.” The organization was dedicated to the “Promotion of Good Morals and Good Citizenship.” Meetings were held on, you guessed it, Friday night and consisted of lectures from local ministers or a reading of a paper written by a member. The goal was to help these young bachelors temper their base desires and passions and eventually become masters, and consequently men.

What’s interesting about early American ideas of bachelorhood was the dichotomy between the respective views of the New England and Chesapeake Bay colonies. While the Puritan New Englanders wrung their hands about young, single men and created laws that essentially outlawed bachelors, in the Chesapeake colonies, where men outnumbered women to a far greater extent than up North, the society was much more accepting of them. Rather than making bachelorhood a pejorative status to designate young, single men as dependent and useless, bachelorhood in the South was conferred upon any unmarried man, whether he owned property or not. This idea of the bachelor would eventually spread to New England and become the definition of bachelorhood that we’re familiar with today.

Bachelor Taxes and Forced Military Duty

Even as early Americans began recognizing single men as a distinct and autonomous group, worry and suspicion over bachelors continued. Bachelors seemed so untamed, rough, and ill-suited for contributing to civilized society. So starting in the 18th century, American colonists once again started creating laws that singled out bachelors and punished single men for being unattached.

Inspired by the ancient Greeks, colonies started to levy “bachelor taxes” on men who remained unmarried after a certain age. The idea was that because single men didn’t have a family to support, they could afford to contribute more money in taxes. The tax served two purposes besides filling the colonial coffers. First, it reduced the amount of disposable income bachelors had to use on bachelor indulgences like boozing, gambling, and whoring. Second, the tax acted as an incentive for young men to quit dragging their feet on the way to the altar and settle down.

Bachelor taxes were just the beginning of the 18th century’s legal war against single men.  Many colonies imposed higher fines on bachelors than on married men for similar infractions. So if you (a bachelor) and that lawfully married Mr. Smith were both caught playing hooky from church one Sunday (a legal infraction in many colonies), the authorities would take it easy on Mr. Smith while hitting you with the full fine because, well, Mr. Smith has seven mouths to feed at home, while you just spend your money on ale.

Colonies also passed laws that required mandatory military service from single men, while excusing married men from such obligations. Just as the early joint stock companies had seen single men as a disposable resource who could be used to tame the American wilderness in preparation for the arrival of women and families, the lives of bachelors were seen as easier to spare for sacrifice on the battlefield.

Now, American bachelors didn’t sit idly by while a bunch of married men passed taxes and laws that punished them for simply staying stag. No, the bachelors of America united to fight bachelor laws. Letters were published in newspapers and pamphlets were passed around arguing that laws singling out young bachelors were undemocratic and immoral. Many historians call the fight against bachelor laws America’s first civil rights movement. The bachelors’ work paid off. By the end of the Revolutionary War, bachelor laws in all the colonies had been repealed.

Bachelor as Threat to Republican Manhood

Despite the growing acceptance of bachelorhood, many leaders during the American Revolution saw bachelors as a threat to republican manhood. One of the most vocal and ardent critics of bachelors was Philadelphia publisher and statesman, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin wholeheartedly believed that bachelors were “but one half of a pair of scissors,” and that “a single man has not nearly the value he would have in a state of union. He is an incomplete animal.” He used his newspapers and his other publications as a bully pulpit from which to sound the warning about the threat of young bachelors. Franklin saw bachelors as weak-willed, indecisive, and selfish men who were more attracted to living a luxurious life than helping build the young republic. In his Poor Richard’s Almanac, Franklin often portrayed bachelors as effeminate, European-loving dandies who lacked the hardihood that American masculinity required in order to settle a new country.

The great irony about Franklin’s disdain towards bachelors was that technically, Franklin himself was a bachelor for most of his life. He never formally married his wife Deborah Read because she was unable to secure a divorce from her first husband, John Rodgers. They were forced to establish a common-law marriage. Moreover, as a young man, Franklin had indulged in the behaviors he abhorred in bachelors and fathered a son out of wedlock. And he spent many years in Europe away from Read, often choosing to prolong his stay and continue functionally living as a bachelor himself, flirting with the French ladies who couldn’t get enough of Franklin’s gout-y charm, even though his wife was lonely.

Old Ben’s war against bachelors was in vain though. Americans were becoming more and more accepting of bachelorhood. In fact, at the start of the 19th century, many began to see a man’s bachelor years as a formative time in a young man’s maturation, a time where he laid the foundation for the rest of his adult life. It was during a man’s bachelor years that he’d gain an education, establish a career, and find a woman with whom he could settle down. Instead of being viewed as “rogue elephants,” Americans began to see bachelors as symbols of manly independence and strength.

Next time: The Golden Age of the American Bachelor, 1860-1900

History of the American Bachelor Series:
Colonial and Revolutionary America
Post-Civil War America
The 20th and 21st Century

____________________

Sources:

Citizen Bachelor by John Gilbert McCurdy

The Age of the Bachelor by Howard P. Chudacoff

The above are the only two comprehensive books written about the history of bachelorhood in America. I highly recommend picking up these books if this topic interests you. Very fascinating reads!

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Fino For Men April 5, 2012 at 7:23 pm

Looking forward to the next post on The Golden Age! Great article Howard.

2 James April 5, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Terrific. I was not sure how much I would “care” for this article, yet I end part 1 extremely interested. Depending on the follow ups, the provided book suggestions may be missing from my library soon! I must also add thanks for those suggestions. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this site is the discovery of new books and topics on which to dive into, and this is no exception.

Maybe it’s time us bachelors of today began our very own “Friday Evening Association of Bachelors.” From local meetings, to of course in this day and age, an online type gathering. Anything we can do to better ourselves and each other is worth looking into. Would anyone else be interested in this? Even if it became a section in the forum of this site? Which reminds me, I must take the few minutes and re-register there this weekend!

3 Tyler April 5, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Very interesting read. Im definitely looking forward to reading the next post.

4 Liam April 5, 2012 at 9:08 pm

A very insightful article. I can’t wait for part 2.

5 Kenneth April 5, 2012 at 11:46 pm

About time we got a little recognition. Many of us never planned to be bachelors, but here we are, hoping to do some good for the society our nieces and nephews inherit.

6 Bearbeard April 5, 2012 at 11:52 pm

I loved this article. This provided a relevant and insightful glimpse into history. I am definitely looking forward to part II.

7 Andres April 6, 2012 at 12:59 am

Very interesting read.

8 Rahul April 6, 2012 at 3:31 am

Fascinating! Your site is one of a kind. I cannot imagine something like this on any other blog/site.

9 Pranav April 6, 2012 at 5:15 am

Wow!! another amazing article.
More amazing is the fact that some of the practices are still followed, like compulsory military training (Russia).A lot of things which we take for granted these days had been handed over to us not by chance but through a rigorous struggle for many decades.

10 Chad April 6, 2012 at 9:56 am

Good article and look forward to more!

11 Niels April 6, 2012 at 10:12 am

A fantastic article!
And, for any of you bachelors, or post-bachelors wishing to get a more first-hand taste of Revolutionary War bachelordom in all it’s martial glory – check out the website and facebook page of our British Light Infantry (and American militia) reenactment group – HM’s 40th Foot, LI Co – the Bloodhounds.
We’re about as bad-a** as it gets, and if you live in the northeast, we invite you to come check us out some time.
http://www.facebook.com/pages/HM-40th-Foot-2nd-Battalion-LI-Bloodhounds/188461437850483
And a couple links to some youtube vids of us in action and in camp:
http://youtu.be/3zFloQic21Q
http://youtu.be/CvUZGZ9ukVQ

Like the popular period soldier’s song says:
“We shall lead more happy lives,
By getting rid of brats and wives,
That scold and brawl both night and day.
Over the hills and far away.
Over the hills and over the main
to Flanders, Portugal or Spain.
The King commands, and we obey
Over the hills and far away.”

12 Heilung April 6, 2012 at 10:17 am

thanks for this articel! very good!

13 Jeff April 6, 2012 at 10:35 am

Franklin may have also been referencing the “confirmed bachelor”, he’s a real man’s-man.

14 k2000k April 6, 2012 at 12:04 pm

I think Franklins disdain for the ‘vices’ of bachelorhood stems from personal remorse. He was a well known womanizer in his youth, and his later life letters to friends indicate that in his old age he was very aware of the damage sexual relations with unmarried women would do for their future marraige prospects and livelihood.

15 Jacob April 6, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Absolutely fascinating. As a student of history and one consistently trying to cultivate the better notes of bachelorhood, this is most helpful. Greatly anticipate the next article.

16 Chase Christy April 6, 2012 at 3:20 pm

This article is great! I appreciate your prodding between the lines to get bachelors to be productive members of society. Lord knows they have a lot to add, but it can be pretty tough to beat the XBox bug.

17 Rep April 6, 2012 at 5:20 pm

I see the seeds of a Bachelor Studies course..

18 Tony Bird April 6, 2012 at 5:33 pm

I’ve always appreciated the way Ben Franklin established American patriotism, preached conservative wisdom, and embodied bold-faced hedonism and hypocrisy. I have a serious man crush on that guy.

19 DP April 6, 2012 at 5:49 pm

its nice how times change.

20 Charles Stewart April 6, 2012 at 6:34 pm

This article makes me wonder if the views on bachelors was different in the Western US (the frontier for the colonist) versus the New England area.

21 Michael April 6, 2012 at 7:38 pm

Hey, did someone say “bachelor”? (Heh.)

As usual, a well-researched and well-written article. I never really delved into the historical context myself, so it’s great to see this. (The days of governmental bachelor discrimination! Now we just get a weak smile and slightly-too-loud “table for one??”)

Anxiously awaiting Part II.

22 steve April 6, 2012 at 7:46 pm

“Instead, bachelorhood was dependent on a man’s age and whether he owned property”

how… exactly is that different from today? You’d have to be completely out of your mind to think that a guy living with his mom, and single, could be called a bachelor…

23 Ralmon April 6, 2012 at 8:06 pm

Hmmm. Ben fight against bachelorhood but indulge in it anyways. Not a good. I wonder, does that mean he is “effeminate” as he like to say it? Hypocrite?

Well moving on. I’m a bachelor myself and found this article interesting. I don’t indulge to this bachelor activities your talking about. I’m more like a lone wolf hunting for myself. I only liked company in small numbers and avoid romantic and physical relationship with women though I like making friends with them.

I kinda blame it on my past. My youth is emotionally barren, most of my days I’m left on my own.

I kinda think based on my experience that ‘higher’ level elements of humanity like joy, love, empathy and the like is developed when we are young and you will have a hard time developing them in adulthood. With my youth’s lack of socializing I kinda have hard time feeling joy, feeling love, or empathizing with other people. I tried hard as I could but its an effort when to others its part of their nature.

I wonder what other bachelor’s past are. I believe they had some experiences similar to mine that make it hard for them to settle down.

As for me I’ll never be able to settle. My psyche is just not developed for it.

24 Nic April 6, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Never thought the term bachelor had so much history into it. Looking forward to part 2!

25 Marcus April 7, 2012 at 9:57 am

Very interesting article. I’ve been wondering about this for a while since most of my paternal grandfathers didn’t get married until they were about 40! Though that was in Ireland. For some reason they changed for the most part later. Not that none of my uncles haven’t had this problem. I’m only 31, so I’m still young compaired to them-right? It is not all fun being single at this time in life either. I always thought I just wanted to marry the best lady. Maybe I’ve gotten too used to being alone. I wonder if there are any books on the history of bachelorhood in Ireland?

26 Mr. X April 7, 2012 at 1:34 pm

I am going to against the grain of most comments here, but I found this article rather dull.

27 Keith Brawner April 7, 2012 at 2:15 pm

James, I would be interested in a Friday Night Association (Junto?). My wife left me, and as a single man I find that the choices for Friday night are typically limited to:
– spending time in the company of women (my girlfriend works Friday night)
– Wednesday night activities (reading, exercising, schoolwork)
– getting into trouble (“going out”, video games, poker)

28 Keith Brawner April 7, 2012 at 2:17 pm

NOTE – I meant that the first parenthesis makes the first choice foolish, and I do not opt for it.

29 JG April 8, 2012 at 10:12 am

I’d rather happily be a bachelor than to be miserably married just because some say being a bachelor is bad. I’m certainly not going to rush into marriage just for marriage sake.

30 Moeregaard April 10, 2012 at 11:03 am

Spousal-support, i.e., alimony, is the new “bachelor tax.”

31 Bryan April 12, 2012 at 10:25 am

“In contrast to masters, dependents were young, single men who lacked private property and held no responsibilities within the community… Their lack of mastery actually prevented them from being considered men.

17th century New England colonists didn’t take too kindly to bachelors. They saw them as a threat to wholesome society and prone to hooliganism; pamphlets printed at the time referred to bachelors as “rogue elephants.”

This pretty much sums up the 21st century “young urban male”–the “baby daddies” and the “pimpin’ types, the Guidos and their ilk.

32 Gin&Tonics April 15, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Very informative and well written. I have to say, I really like this website. For too long the media has been glorifying the thug/douchebag culture that is sadly so pervasive in our modern society. I think a return to the values of the gentleman of traditional virtue is long, LONG overdue, and I think artofmanliness.com is definitely doing its part to promote such a return.

33 Gin&Tonics April 15, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Had to add one more thing as I just noticed Moeregaard’s comment:

No, it most certainly is not. Not even remotely the same thing. Child support/alimony is levied on men who have chosen to get married and then chosen to break their marriage vows and separate. Alimony is not instituted in every case of divorce, either.

A man should not be totally free to marry a woman and commit to protect and provide for her, then dump her and leave her penniless and without means of support, which is unfortunately what often happened in the past and which gave rise to the alimony provisions we now have.

Bachelor taxes were levied against men who were never married in the first place, and not always by their own choice.

34 Martini April 17, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Gin & Tonics – women initiate 2/3 of divorce, so your attempt at shaming men who “dump her and leave her penniless” fails the reality test.

The reality is more nearly the opposite. Women get bored with the man, and kick him to the curb, giving him one-seventh time with the kid, while gladly cashing the checks.

Get a clue.

35 DP April 18, 2012 at 12:39 pm

interesting how their still seems to archaic hatred of bachelors.

36 Christopher Kou April 19, 2012 at 2:04 pm

There seems to be a concept of bachelorhood in Shakespeare’s day, evidenced by the character of Benedict in “Much Ado About Nothing.” I wonder if this had died out by the time of the colonies, or if there are several strains of thought running parallel here.

37 Ken April 20, 2012 at 9:25 am

You seem to use Chesapeake Bay region and the south as interchangeable. Did the practice start around the bay, move south before going north?

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