As part of the podcast, Peter McGraw has been pointing out his concerns about a subset of single men around the world. In this episode, he invites John McCurdy, a Professor of History at Eastern Michigan University, to discuss the role of bachelorhood in Colonial America (and beyond) through the lens of McCurdy’s 2009 book Citizen Bachelors.
Listen to Episode #132 here
The Bachelor In Colonial America And Beyond
John McCurdy is a Professor of History at Eastern Michigan University. We discuss bachelorhood in Colonial America and beyond through the lens of his 2009 book, Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States, which began as his dissertation for his PhD program in History at Washington University in St. Louis. As of late, I’ve been pointing out my concerns about a subset of single men around the world.
This conversation was enlightening to me in many ways, including the realization that there was more space for singles prior to the 20th century, that is, that singlehood was, in some ways, less liminal, also that the bachelor set a precedent for future representation and voting rights for other marginalized groups, and finally, on how complex the interplay of singlehood in society can be. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Thank you for having me.
I want to talk to you about the history of single men in America, something that you document in your book, Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States. Before we dive into this, I want to revisit my early days of the Solo project. At the time, it wasn’t a project for both men and women as it is now. Originally, it was a bachelor’s guide to a remarkable life. I’ve documented this here and there. There are a lot of men in the United States and elsewhere, especially single men, who are struggling nowadays. I’ve been paying attention for a while. I looked up some of my early writings when I was getting the project going. I found my original one-pager. I want to read some of it to you and get your reaction.
This is early writing, so this is not a finished draft in any way, “The bachelor is a disappointment to grandmothers and governments alike. Indeed, across cultures, unmarried men draw comparisons to various incomplete animals, rogue elephants, single dogs, and unyoked oxen. The stereotype of the bachelor is well-known, debonair with a sweet pad.”
“The stereotype fails to match the reality for hundreds of millions of men around the world. Older divorced men are struggling to adapt to new lives, and young men are being outpaced by women in the classroom and home ownership so much for that sweet pad. Worse are the misogynistic men turning to video games and porn to cope with their self-described involuntary celibacy. However, being married with children isn’t so great either and can’t be right for everyone.”
I’ll pause there. That was the setup to this project, essentially, this conflict between single living, married living, and the fact that there are a lot of men who may not be doing it in the present day particularly well. Before we get into Citizen Bachelor, I want to get your reaction to that positioning, that paradox of sort.
I understand what you’re saying and where you’re coming from. You’re right. It’s the way you’re describing it as drawn sharply. It’s a very black-and-white divide. One of the things I learned while working on this project is that I don’t think we should overestimate these categories. “What is a bachelor?” is a question that, in some sense, I’ve learned that many different people who have different answers for that is a person who was once married and no longer married. “A person who loses his wife, is he a bachelor? Can a woman be a bachelor?” A married man whose wife goes away for the weekend, which my father used to talk about, “I’m batching it this weekend,” when my mother would go away. He had not left my mother and had no intention of doing so. It’s a nebulous term. That’s where I would start.
If you look at a bachelor in the dictionary, it essentially is a single man or an animal without a mate during meeting season are the two major definitions of bachelor, which don’t do us very much good when it comes to the connotations of the bachelor that’s there.
I want to follow up on your larger point about bachelors being viewed negatively. Not to jump ahead, but a question I had when I started this project is I had always assumed that we live in a time in which bachelorhood is maybe not normal, but it certainly got better and more accepted than it was hundreds of years ago, etc.
I was curious, so I went in with this assumption that it’s going to be all negative, that it’s going to be this harsh, medieval past we’ve liberated ourselves from. It’s much more complicated than that, which was the thing I learned. That’s true for single men nowadays that it’s a lot more complicated than a negative or even a positive image. Bachelors are humans, so we’re going to expect to find a lot of complexity there.
Also, it’s unreasonable to take an entire category of single men and characterize them with the same set of terms to paint them with the same brush. That’s why you’re here because if it wasn’t complicated, I wouldn’t need you. Why don’t we start with what started the project for you? What a lot of people don’t know about academics is you can pick not whatever project you want, but you have a lot of different interests. You’ve written about a lot of different topics. How did this project come across your desk or mind? What started it?
This was a book that grew out of my dissertation. I was a Doctoral student at Washington University in St. Louis. In order to get a PhD, you have to write a book. I needed a topic, and you needed to find a topic that no one else has written on. I have two answers to your question. The academic answer is I wanted to study early America, the Colonial Period, the Revolution, that era. There were several books written on families. There’s even been a book written on single women in Philadelphia. From an academic perspective, you look for the big hole of what has not been written about, and there’s your project.
I wrote the book when I was a bachelor. I have a partner, but I’m not legally married. I talked about this somewhere in the book at the beginning. I had gone to a seat at the performance of The Nutcracker Suite with this gay couple I know and I’m very good friends with. We’re sitting there and watching his performance. I’m thinking about Tchaikovsky, who has this troubled marriage, is closeted, and is homosexual.
In watching The Nutcracker, the most interesting figure is Drosselmeyer, this mysterious figure who comes and gives little Clara a doll. He gives her The Nutcracker. He’s such a mysterious figure because he doesn’t show up with any family, children, or wife. I started thinking that, “If I’m identifying myself as a bachelor in the late ’90s, can that identification go back? Is there a past I can relate to, even if it’s not exactly the same as the present? Does this idea of singlehood, single identity, or a bachelor identity exist in earlier eras, including specifically the Colonial Period, which I wanted to write a book about?”
I want to hold, as a little bit of foreshadowing, the question about why it’s called Citizen Bachelor, which is interesting. We’re going to keep people holding on here longer than they might otherwise to find out the story behind your title. You could correct me if I’m wrong. When I did a deep dive into bachelorhood, the term bachelor, I found it written by Chaucer in the 14th century.
This idea is worth talking about. There’s that eligible bachelor, the confirmed bachelor, that more modern perspective of the bachelors who are open to marriage, potential marriage or marriageable, versus me, the confirmed bachelor who won’t get married. I know that was once coded language perhaps for gay men in the United States.
People didn’t lament bachelors during Chaucer’s time, is my understanding of it. The bachelors were on this path that it was a liminal state that they were going to be transformed into something superior. They were pursuing knighthood. They’re squires and so dedicated to their craft that they are not appealing. They don’t have the energy and the time available for marriage, but someday. The original bachelors were very much eligible. Is my understanding of that correct?
It comes up in The Canterbury Tales, where the bachelors are referred to. The etymology of the word is bas-chevalier. It’s a knight in training. You see how that gets applied metaphorically to an unmarried man, who’s a young man who will get married. He’s in training, but he will become a knight in that marital sense once he marries and starts a family. It’s also that notion that, in a training session, a person who’s not yet fully a man in this medieval concept should not marry.
This is why students don’t marry. College students did not marry. Indentured servants did not marry. Anyone doing an apprenticeship was not to be married. If you were a soldier in the Army, you weren’t to get married. In all of these cases, you could get an exception from your master, superior, officer, or whoever. That’s also where the concept or term of bachelor comes from. It’s a state in which a person is not married. In that sense, it’s like a spinster. To spin wool, you don’t have to be a single woman, but there’s an association there.
This notion that singlehood was a liminal state is very clear there. It’s a transition as you transition from being a youth into a full man. It’s worth mentioning this notion of a master. These squires or bachelors had a man they were apprenticing with, who they were accountable to, who mentored them, and clearly had some decision-making over their life.
If we’re going to the beginning of American history, nobody exists without a master. Everyone has a master. Every child has a parent. Every servant and slave has a master. The wife is bound to her husband. Even men are not really independent. You’re always connected to somebody else. There’s always somebody who has a say over your life in a way that we would find oppressive, but it is a normal way that a lot of human society has worked for thousands of years.
Where that tension starts to exist is especially when people start to forego that traditional path, like when the spinsters don’t marry because they don’t need to, and they can make their own money, for example, or the bachelor who decides to forego familyhood for whatever reason. Let’s fast forward ahead a little bit. Some of the terminologies are likely to come up again. There are a lot of pejoratives directed at single men.
There’s a lot also directed towards women. Spinsters in New England became thornbacks at age 26. It’s a ray fish that has these thorn spikes on its back. It’s not an appealing image, as you might imagine. There’s the devastating old maid who, at some point, becomes unmarriageable. Bachelors get a lot of animal references, all of these being forces to get these men to behave.
Let’s talk about this period of time. You’re curious about this thing on a personal level. You’re very practical. You’re an academic. “Let me find the hole in the literature,” and you found an interesting hole in the literature, one that is important, especially with your thesis. Let’s talk about the time periods that we’re going to be focusing on for clarity. Could you say what those are again?
I was interested in the Colonial Period of American history. There was some English past there. The span of the book was about 1550 to about 1800.
I’m a fellow nerd so humor me here. How does one do this research? I’m in a faraway field, it feels like. When you decide to do something like this, what does the research look like? How much of it is determined by your hypothesis going in?
This is something I’ve learned in my years as a historian. If you have a great topic, that’s usually a bad idea to start researching with because I would do this. I have this great topic on bachelors in early America. It was pretty wide open when I started the research, but I would go to the archive. I went to a number of great archives on the East Coast.
I would go in and say, “Give me everything you have about bachelors,” and they would just look at me. They had an index for that. There was no finding aid for men, unmarried. That was very frustrating because other people did not have this problem. I then tried to think about, “How could I find unmarried men in the sources?” What I started with, which is where this all grew out of, was this reference to laws that I found in 11 of the 13 colonies.
There were laws that explicitly named unmarried men. I was fascinated about why these existed when they seem so contrary to our ideas of citizenship and relationship to the government from a 21st-century perspective. It’s like, “Where did these come from? What were they there for? Were they there to punish single men? Were they there for something else? Did they relate to one another? What were the effects of those?” Where I started was trying to understand these laws to build that out then because those laws are only going to give you one sense or piece of the information.
I then looked at the literature and did a lot of work with the ephemeral literature like pamphlets, broadsides, not novels, but the lighter stuff because there’s a lot of humorous stuff written about bachelors through the 17th and 18th centuries. There’s a lot in England, but some in the colonies. Finally, I tried looking at the lives of men. This was the hardest piece to get at. It was trying to get into some diaries of what are men writing about themselves, who were living through this experience, or even demographics, like what could we assess about a group of bachelors in the Colonial Period.
This takes years to get through all this stuff. In part, given what you were looking at these laws, can you give an example of one of those laws to give people a flavor?
There were a couple of famous ones. One is colonial New England. In the various colonies in the 17th century, New England had a law that a single person was not to live alone. They were to be attached to a household that was gender neutral. That was both men and women. It’s enforced somewhat, probably more informally enforced than it is formally enforced. That would be one.
Another one would be military service during the French-Indian war and the American Revolution, various colonies and then in the revolution. States will pass laws saying, “We need a draft. We need men to carry arms to go to war against the English. You’re going to be drafted if you’re unmarried. We will draft you,” not, “First, we will draft you.” The third, which was the most interesting one, was bachelor taxes. There were laws in many of the colonies that would assess you a specific tax because of your unmarried state.
It was that bachelor tax that led me to your work. I came across that somewhere else and found that to be fascinating, which also made me somewhat furious. I’ve already talked a little bit about these pejoratives used to describe single men or women. These laws are designed to control behavior. They’re designed to encourage and motivate marriage. No?
Yes and no. I’m an academic. The answer to every yes or no question is yes and no. The most famous bachelor law or taxes is one from 1756 in Maryland. Maryland places its law. It’s 1756, the beginning of the French-Indian wars. They need money, and they’re going to all sources to get money, not just bachelors who are being taxed the heck out of everything. In the part of the law that talks about the bachelor tax, they even have a preface where they make this statement that this was about promoting marriage and protecting children. It’s moralistic and interesting. 1) That type of language doesn’t show up in the other laws. 2) The bachelors they are choosing to tax are very wealthy bachelors over the age of 25.
This was getting back to your earlier question about, “Do we think of bachelors as being young men? Are they liminal? Are they bachelors or just not yet married men?” The Maryland Law, to me, looks like trying to target this group, which at the time would be called not confirmed bachelors, but old bachelors. If you haven’t married by 25, you’re an old bachelor. There’s something wrong with you. You’re probably wasting your money. They’re also taxing Madeira and billiards tables. They’re taxing other things that we might associate with the extravagant lifestyle of a bachelor who’s very wealthy in society.
Are you saying this was a practical matter, where it’s like, “Who has the money? These old bachelors have the money. They don’t need this money because they don’t have kids and a wife?”
That’s a piece of it. That’s something that does shoot through a lot of these laws. It is this notion that an unmarried man is going to have more income and resources because he does not have a child and wife to provide for. You can also invert that and say, “An unmarried man does not have a productive labor force that is producing money for him.” You can flip this on its head and say one unmarried man has to hire a housekeeper. If he needs any type of work done, he needs to hire a valet or a servant. He has to pay for his food in ways he would not have to if he were married.
It doesn’t always work out as neatly as they think, but it is the idea that unmarried men would have excess income. It also shades slightly differently because is this about punishing men? Is this about saying rich bachelors have extra money they can give? Is this a way of trying to protect married men? If I can jump to a different example, I see that in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania has very different types of laws. In the early Pennsylvania 1690s, they had poll taxes and property taxes. The poll tax at the time of the Colonial Period is just a head tax. It’s a flat fee tax. Everyone pays this many shillings and taxes. They go through early on in the history of the colony. You’re assessed so much tax on how many acres of land you have and how many men are in your household. At some point, they shift that. Before 1700, they shifted. The poll tax is only to be paid by unmarried men who don’t own any property.
This makes sense in Colonial Pennsylvania that you have these young men who are out working and earning cash income, but because they own no property or land, they’re not paying any taxes. It’s a way of trying to get taxes out of this group of this growing population because it’s not small who are getting away without paying any taxes. In that sense, Pennsylvania is trying to level the field and say, “If you’re out working and earning an income, you should be paying some taxes on that.”
When you said not small, do you have a sense of how big this group is? We’re living in the United States in 2022, and half of the American adults are single or at least unmarried. Almost half of them are men. That’s a lot of 50 million-plus unmarried men in the United States now.
In terms of numbers, this is something that’s always a controversy. When I started this research, everything I read said there were no unmarried people in early America, which doesn’t make sense to anybody who knows anything about early America. There are only three censuses in the colonial period in which they ask a person’s marital status. It’s 2 in New Hampshire and 1 in Connecticut. These were the very late 1760s to 1770s. The one from New Hampshire is 1767. It’s 37% of men between the ages of 16 and 60 are unmarried, which seems ridiculously high because 16 is pretty young to get married, and by 60, you may have lost a spouse. It’s still a high number compared to what we would expect.
The number of single people in early America is much larger than we would assume. I would assume it’s not as high as it is nowadays, but there are also institutions that exist that don’t exist nowadays, such as slavery, indentured servitude, and apprenticeships, in which men were required to be single, or if in the case of an enslaved person where they would not have their marriage recognized by the law. Immigrant groups tended to be male and largely young men if we think about those factors about the number of single men in the Colonial Period.
It’s due to the oppression that was so much more rampant at that time. I want you to keep correcting me. I want you to keep the nuance if we can. I have the great luxury of interpreting these things in nefarious ways but also practical ways. My sense of this is that Colonial America is in an unstable time. This is a time when it’s not clear what’s going to happen with these territories, states, and this country, and families are an important element. If you have created a system of tax where you have property ownership, then you want people owning property. You want people behaving in certain ways.
What you’re saying is there’s some of this discrimination that unmarried men are experiencing is a practical element to it. It seems to me that when the overarching perspective is having family and children and building a household are the norm, it’s good for the economy and stability. When anyone opts out of this, they are the ones who are not protected. You end up not only you call them bad names, but you also make their life difficult for being the way that they are. To what degree do you think these are convenient decisions versus how much of it is a well-thought-out, “Let’s exert some pressure here to get these boys to behave the way they’re supposed to behave?”
There’s one of the things I learned in working on this book because I’m skeptical of how much social engineering is going on in this era. When it comes to bachelors, the big concern that people are having is that men are having sex with women, getting them pregnant, and then not marrying the woman. There’s a bastard child, and who cares who the bastard is?
There’s a child out there that nobody’s paying for, which becomes a real problem. This has been the problem in England. This is what England is obsessed with. In the colonies, many of them are coming from England but carry these same ideas to America that men are not taking responsibility for their progeny. This is the real concern with bachelors. All the other stuff filters around the edges. That’s a big concern.
The arguments have been made that in the colonies, especially in the Southern colonies, having all these extra kids, whether their fathers are claiming them or is not an issue because you can indenture them. You can put them to work on a tobacco plantation. You can get labor out of them. They can have a master. They don’t need a father if you can have a master. Some of those anxieties go away. That’s certainly there as well. Within the Christian tradition, not to go back 1,500 years before I should, but there’s always been a place for the unmarried within a Christian tradition. This is true of a lot of places in the world.
In the West, I don’t know if we’ve ever lived in a society in which people are forced to get married. There’s a piece in Magna Carta 1215 that says, “Widows should not be forced to get married against their will.” There is this concept to conduct a Christian marriage where both parties have to enter willingly and without coercion. There is a sense that the choice to get married is a very personal one. The law is reluctant to hamper that. The closest I found in any of the colonial laws to a place where the state was trying to push people into marriage was some of these laws were in early New England.
What happens if you’re a man, and you have sex with a woman, and she has a child, and you don’t marry her? This is a great problem for New England. They don’t know what to do with this issue. There’s a lot of informal pressure, like family, community, the minister, etc. If the baby comes and the couple is still not married, they’ll go before a judge. The judge will be empowered to either find the couple, whip the couple, or enjoin them to marriage. The judge would say, “I won’t require you to be whipped. You don’t have to pay a fine. Get married. Someone take care of this kid. Form a family.”
It’s interesting because 1) The judges don’t use this often, and 2) It’s pretty early on where people started saying, “I don’t care. I’ll take the fine. I’ll get whipped.” There’s pushback in a lot of men, even in 17th century New England that we’d assumed would be family-based. Perhaps even conservatives are saying, “I’ll just pay child support.” The state rescinds this law. The colonies get rid of this law pretty early. We don’t live in society, nor do I think we have for hundreds of years lived in a society that would ever force anybody to marry. There’s an understanding of that as an individual choice.
Be that as it may, there are pressures to marry, and they’re ubiquitous. They haven’t gone away. If you look at modern-day media, love songs, narratives, and the conversations that come up over Thanksgiving turkey, all the way to tax policy and the way single people are treated at work, all of those things hold marriage in higher regard. It makes it easy to get married and makes it difficult not to get married. There are no laws written that require this, but there are informal and formal processes that exist and guide people to that. By virtue of not doing it, you are behaving in an unconventional non-normative way.
I certainly agree with that. This is true in the 18th century and the 17th century than it is nowadays, that it’s normal to get married. There was a historian who was looking at this from a different angle. We think of going to college. If you have kids, you’re going to send them to college, so probably as soon as they’re born, you’re already saving for them. This is how people hundreds of years ago thought about marriage.
As soon as your child is born, you’re saving money so that he or she can have a dowry and have something to set up. Marriage is understood as this thing that’s going to happen. It’s the way we would probably think about college, education, or having your own house. It’s normative and unusual for people to buck that trend. I always find throughout my studies of Colonial America, I found many men who did buck the trend, many men who had the money, ability, and desire to get married and chose not to. Some of these men become powerful. Their marital status does not seem to hinder it.
The key thing there is men. I have this quote from Benjamin Franklin from 1755, “A man without a wife is half a man.” That’s somewhat ironic given Benjamin Franklin’s behavior more generally with regard to relationships, but that’s his quote. As a woman, if you wanted to leave the familial home, marriage was the way to do that. It was hard for a woman to have enough money or power to be able to do that. Evidently, as you’re pointing out, there were men who, at that time, could be non-normative and step outside of the norm.
Not to be too reductionist, but some of this is so much of this role around money. If you’re wealthy, you can do a lot of things that you can’t do if you aren’t wealthy. That’s true nowadays as it is always has been true. If you’re a woman, single, and don’t want to get married, what are your options? How are you going to support yourself? Hopefully, you’ve been born to a wealthy father who had no sons and was leaving you all this money.
That’s some single women stay single throughout their lives, or you had a good marriage to a guy that didn’t last very long. For women, it’s difficult to find employment outside of the home. There is work for women outside the home as servants, indenturing yourself, or working in someone else’s house. There’s certainly a need for hands in the field. For men, there’s a little more option because men can support themselves. They can earn an income. If they can’t have their own household, they can at least have a room or a separate place they can call their own. They can put together a life.
This term Citizen Bachelor, where did it come from? I have a feeling we’re dancing around this idea now.
It’s writing from Parson Weems, who you would probably know from George Washington chopping down the cherry tree story. He’s the one that invents that story. He’s one of these very prolific writers early in the Republic from 1780 to the 1790s. He’s writing all fun stuff. He writes this as an invocation to citizen bachelors. He calls on young men and young women to marry and start forming families for this new nation that’s been formed after the revolution. That’s where the term comes from.
What I mean by the terms is I think where you’re wanting me to go with this. It’s whether it was interested in the book, is there’s a lot of pressure on unmarried people, men and women, early on throughout the Colonial Period. These unique laws, jokes about the unmarried, young unmarried people struggle, the old bachelor or spinster becomes objects of ridicule, all of that is true. All of it is fine, but there’s a shift that happens. By the middle of the 18th century, there was more of a place for the bachelor and, to a lesser extent, the single woman to try to begin saying, “I’m also part of this new republic.” You had to listen to it closely or see the effects.
The place I found it the most dramatically illustrated is Pennsylvania. I mentioned Pennsylvania earlier. They have this poll tax. If you’re a man, unmarried, working and earning an income, and don’t own any property, you pay a head tax. It’s not oppressive. It’s not a huge tax, but it’s a little annoying because it’s around that same time they’re setting that law in the 1690s that Pennsylvania also states, “In order to vote in this colony, you must own property.” At the same time that they’re putting a tax on all these young men who are out working and earning an income, they are saying you have to own a farm. You have to own a big piece of land to vote.
That’s true throughout the 18th century. That’s true for 75 years until we get to the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776. When the revolution came, all of the states had to write their own constitution because they were all revoking their charter. They’re renouncing the charters they had from the king. They have to state, “This is who we are, and this is how we’re going to organize our government.” A lot of these states, when they write their constitution, will include the enfranchise, the language about who can vote. Pennsylvania states, “In order to be able to vote, a man must have paid taxes.”
It’s interesting because they use that language specifically to say a man must have paid taxes and he has to be 21 to be a resident. There’s not a mention of race. Other states don’t use that language. It’s clear that what’s happening here is that Pennsylvania is enfranchising this large group of men who have been paying taxes and have not been able to vote. That would include some married men because some poor married men are also working for wages and don’t own property. They’re going to be brought in. The largest beneficiaries of that enlargement of the electorate are going to be young single men.
First of all, this is important because of the idea of no taxation without representation. It’s such a fundamental element of American culture so much so that if you look at a license plate in Washington, DC, there’s something to that effect on there. These young men are contributing to society through taxes, the work that they’re doing, and their consumption. They’re contributing economically.
Not everybody’s happy that they’re playing billiards and drinking. Married guys are going home to their families. What are these bachelors going and doing besides occasionally impregnating a woman? This is a religious nation. This is a very morally upright nation in some ways. What are these guys doing that is so unappealing?
If we try to understand who these bachelors are and what lives they are living, most of them are going to be living lives that are probably indistinguishable from married men of that age. They are going to be going to church, and most are going to be working. The time that a married man would be spending with his family, what are these single men doing? In this era, it’s going to depend upon class and how much money you have.
By the middle of the 18th century, you do have bachelor’s clubs. They identified as such bachelor’s clubs. Men are getting together, drinking together, and telling stories. For some men, this is a way of filling up the lonely times. There’s a very famous club, which I won’t call a bachelor’s club. It is something called The Tuesday Club. It was in Annapolis, Maryland, from 1756 and lasted for about 6 or 7 years.
It was founded by a man who’s a Scottish immigrant. His name is Alexander Hamilton, but not the one you think of. It’s a very different one. He’s the one who was an immigrant from Scotland. He’s living alone as a doctor in Annapolis. He’s like, “I’m going to get together and form a club.” It’s a meal club. They get together and have food. They drank, and then they started having these meetings. The meetings are completely ridiculous. They vote on all things, and it’s just a way of getting drunk and passing the time. It’s interesting because the club seems to be made up of other men who are also single, like Hamilton.
He records all of the minutes of this bizarre club and later writes this massive history of this club, which is complete work of embellishment. It’s on par with Washington Irving and that type of stuff. Hamilton gets married there while the club is going on. As the club goes on, he and other members, as they get married, don’t know what to do with the single members that are still in the club, including the club’s president, who was an old and confirmed bachelor, an old merchant living in Annapolis. He becomes the object of ridicule. They start making fun of him. Not all bachelor clubs go in that direction.
It’s interesting that you say that. I’ll digress for a moment. I get an indirect critique about the Solo project almost exclusively from married people. It goes something like this, “Peter, I’m impressed with what you’re doing. What happens if you fall in love, partner up, and get married?” As if that’s going to undermine all the projects I’ve done. First of all, let’s not be too optimistic here or pessimistic depending on your perspective. It is interesting that idea of these guys were once celebrating their bachelorhood and then suddenly turning on it as they reached that position of privilege. This idea that bachelors have had something intriguing about them throughout history.
They’re useful for fighting wars and conquering the frontier, for example. They might be useful to dedicate themselves to onerous projects that crowd out almost everything else, like dedication to science, art, or politics, where there’s no time or inclination for family. I’m curious. Is that something that you came across writing about? Were there more formal, whether it be laws or rules around that idea of recognizing that these single men are useful tools for society to live more dangerous lives, or there might be a good reason to forego family?
That idea is always with us. In the West, we would have the concept of the celibate priesthood. The West is not the only place to have a concept of a celibate priesthood. The concept of certain people are going to dedicate themselves to something that will take the place of a family, that idea is old. That idea shows up lots of times during the Colonial Period. I never want to impose that on an individual when I’m trying to look at the past. There are a lot of married people who are work-obsessed too, and there are lots of lazy single people that don’t do a damn thing.
The opposites also weigh that out. There is a notion that these young men are useful, especially in the colonies working as servants, labor, and in the Army. The thing I would qualify that with is it’s also in the 1690s where you’re getting the rise of demography that you’re getting these rudimentary social scientists trying to say, “What are the number of births? What is the number of deaths? Is the population of England going up? Is it going down? Why is it doing what it’s doing?” It’s at this point that you get some social engineering, or at least its early attempts at people saying, “We need people to get married because the real strength of the nation is in its population. We want people to be having as many children as possible.”
For men, that means you’re going to need to be married to the mother and support those children. Some of this also gets into Thomas Malthus and his writings in the late 18th century about population. Yes, there’s a sense that these single men and their bodies are useful. It’s always better to send single men off to war because if they die, you don’t have to pay pensions to a family. That has to be countered with a sense of, “We need men to be having children,” which are seen as equally as important.
In some ways, that hasn’t changed as much as we might hope. I did a Solo thoughts episode on depopulation. Elon Musk, in particular, has been tweeting and talking about the threat to humanity around depopulation that we’re going to peak population and then it’s going to decline because of lower fertility rates and how that serves as a threat. Certainly, although the data is equivocal at the country level, the idea that growing populations are good for countries and declining populations are bad for countries is much more complicated than that, as you might imagine. This still exists nowadays that for the betterment of society and economic growth, you want families.
You want people coupling up, having children, and having more than one because that becomes a real problem. You got a place like Japan. You get a super-aged nation. You don’t have the workforce by which to support the older generation with regard to services, etc., that’s there. You need to come to other solutions, either incentivizing these things or punishing people to do that, leaning into immigration, which is something that Japan has been reluctant to do. We even see the United States pulling back on immigration also.
The funny thing in the Colonial Period is you don’t need any incentives for people to get married and have kids in the American colonies because the Americans had massive families. They’re having 6 and 8 and 10 kids. There’s a historian, Susan Clapp, who did some looking at this. This is true throughout the Colonial Period. These people are having massive families because they have access to land in ways they didn’t have in the places they were living.
Around the time of the revolution, around 1800, those numbers started dropping off. Through the 19th century, people have had fewer and fewer children. If you want to have a law encouraging people to get married, you need one around 1900. In 1700, people are having lots of kids. You don’t need a lot of incentive at that period.
What I hear you saying is, “Peter, this is not as simple as the story you have built in your mind around how single people are being treated at this time. Some of this is a matter of convenience. Some of this is a matter of, in general, values and perspective. Some of this is you have a young nation that you need to grow. There’s this countervailing force, where wealthier men, because of their privilege plus privilege, are able to buck the system and provide value in some ways that’s there.” Is that a fair characterization of me trying to update my priors on this situation?
Everything you said is true. If you look at the country hundreds of years ago, it was normal if you get married. Most people get married. Most people want to get married and have kids, and the ones who don’t are odd. I get fascinated by that because there are these stories I don’t know what to do with. I was talking about the New England Law that said, “If you’re a single person, you have to be attached to a household. You can’t live on your own.” This is about young people and people that don’t have any money.
There’s a time in Dorchester, which has now been absorbed into Boston, where there’s a town meeting. This young man, Steven Hoppin, is called forward to face the selectmen and answer for, “Why are you living on your own?” He’s living outside of the law. They tell him, “You need to find a place to live. You need to find a master to put yourself under. You can’t be on your own.” On that council of selectmen is William Staunton, who himself is a lifelong bachelor. He’s a wealthy man. He graduated from Harvard. He’s a Minister. He’s become a Judge. He becomes Lieutenant Governor of the colony before he dies. He has an unfortunate role in the Salem Witch Trials.
It’s interesting because I think like, “How do you do that? Is that an example of hypocrisy?” That is more, but what more is going on is it has to do with what it means to be single, how we understand singlehood, and how some of those ideas shifted over time that Staunton is at a level that he’s above reproach and those types of questions, yet he’s still single. People are still going to ask the same questions about, “What’s he doing? Why is he single? Why didn’t he get married? What’s he doing in his spare time if he’s not having sex with his wife? Who’s he having sex with?”
It’s the classics. “You’re so great. Why are you still single?” even comes up in front of the selectmen. I can answer your question, John. I can do this from my friend Shane Mauss, with who we were talking about the history of homo-sapiens. We were not always in this agrarian, industrial digital world. We once lived as hunter-gatherers in these much smaller communities that are much more communal and also have elements of non-monogamy and so on that some people find repulsive and strange and think are unnatural nowadays.
Shane’s like, “I have to imagine that in these hunter-gatherer groups, there was someone who is sick of all these people being around all the time and looks forward to going out hunting on his own or looking for berries on her own just to get some peace and quiet that’s out there in the world.” Even in your Nutcracker story, the character that you described, Drosselmeyer, strikes me as a lone wolf. There is this trope that has existed throughout history. It’s not a true lone wolf because we have misinterpreted what it means to be a lone wolf. Lone wolves go off and join other packs.
The true lone wolf, the comedian road comic who’s out on the road all the time, the digital nomad, the traveling salesperson in this way, are oftentimes people who are not interested in the hierarchy. They’re not interested in traditional forms of status. They like their solitude. They’re not misanthropes but are cut from a different cloth. There seems to be some actual potential benefit in the world of loners. Evolutionary biologists talk about if there’s ever a mass extinction event, it’s these loners who are going to be able to bring back humanity.
There’s evidence for this like mold and stuff like that out there in the world. While one standard profession doesn’t work for everyone, and there’s not one standard leisure that works for everyone, or even one type of sexual orientation that works for everyone, the notion of a traditional family, which is a made up thing that serves agrarian and industrial purposes, can’t fit for everyone anyways.
You’re going to have people, especially ones with privilege, stand up to authority and say, “You can’t make me do this. I don’t want to do it. I’m going to work my way around.” It might especially be that lone wolf mentality because you’re certainly stepping outside of hierarchy. The moment you decide to embrace you’re a bachelor, you’re embracing the fact that you’re lower status and be comfortable with that.
I don’t know. I try not to be a scientist of humanity.
John, this is an interview. You can say whatever you want. It’s not a peer review journal.
I can’t speak to all people of all places in times. There’s always been a place for the people who are not connected. We’ve always had this. I grew up in a family. I had older parents. Both of my parents were 1 of 4, and each had an unmarried sister, never married, and lived at home with the mother after the father died.
There was always some question about, “Why didn’t she marry?” It was a combination of, “It didn’t work out,” and health. It was those same ideas I saw in the 1700s and the 1600s. It’s not a new concept. In my research, there was more room for the unmarried person in the earlier era than we had in the 20th century. It’s because so many people live in broken homes, and the death rates are so high because so many people are losing their parents or being taken from their parents at a very young age.
If you grew up in a successful home in the colonies, you’re probably going to leave home around 11 or 12 to be a servant in someone else’s house. Most people don’t grow up in the house they were born in. They go somewhere else. They’re not going to school. They go to learn a trade and learn how to farm. There’s a lot of dislocation. There are a lot of people who are unattached and unconnected. It’s not unusual at the time, even if everyone thinks, “Everyone should be married. Being married and having a family is happiness as we all are aiming for it.” There’s an understanding where that’s not achievable for a large segment of the population.
It’s the 20th century where that has become much more of more tangible. I don’t want to get into what’s wrong with the 1950s. At the beginning of the ’20s and ’30s, you get this anxiety over homosexuals, which there was not a lot of anxiety over homosexuality before the 20th century. There are some but not the levels we saw in the 20th century. Suddenly, being single is a concern because it’s assumed to be gay or lesbian in ways that those assumptions are not going to be made in earlier periods, and so the unmarried person, but it also becomes a more of a worry. The economy and the society change.
I want to be clear that in the 18th century, America was a hard place to live. The single person reading this had a better life than a married person in 1755 when Ben Franklin was talking smack about singles. It is important to appreciate how far we’ve come regarding individual rights, representation, ability to vote, education, and economic opportunities, especially for women, but also no slavery in the United States and beyond. Nonetheless, I still find this to be a fascinating case study. It is interesting that, in some ways, you’re saying that there was this regression for singles in America in the 20th century that I hadn’t considered.
I don’t know if I would say regression because the 1950s would be a time when there was a lot more pressure to marry. At the same time, this is the same era that’s giving rise to Playboy and Hugh Hefner, which we can critique, but he makes a lot of money selling a certain lifestyle to unmarried men or men who fantasize about being unmarried. There’s always that dichotomy. There are always people who were demanding a greater place for the individual. A lot of this comes out of the revolution, and the enlightenment that our country is born of these enlightenment ideals of the individual is paramount.
Who you’re related to should not matter to your relationship with the state. Who you’re descending from, who you’re married to, or who your children are shouldn’t matter. Your religion shouldn’t matter that the individual becomes primary. When you start thinking in that way, it becomes difficult to begin denying people rights, or you have to come up with other excuses, like gender, race, and things like that, to say you’re not really an individual.
When we get to the notion of the individual, that is where you get a place for the bachelor. You see this in the revolutionary era that some of these founders are writing stuff like, “There’s something good in the bachelor, something admirable because he’s the most independent of all men. He doesn’t need anybody to survive. He is self-sufficient and self-supporting.” Some of it is a bit hyperbole, but it’s a way of saying the bachelor can even be imagined as the most individualistic person, which is primary.
Being solo has less to do with relationship status than it does with a particular orientation in that it is of completeness that, unlike what Franklin thinks, the solo sees him or herself as complete, as a whole individual, which then opens up the possibility to partner or to not partner, and to partner in the way you want. It’s freeing in that sense. This project is less about relationship status and some ways about the autonomy you have about self-sufficiency.
If you choose a partner, you’re doing so because they add value, not because they solve problems for you. It’s not because you just default into it because that’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s the development of the ideas I have been working on. It’s interesting to hear you talk about back in that time, these people being held up in some ways as self-sufficient individuals, that they have optionality, that they can make a choice versus the average person who has no choice or doesn’t want any choice.
They’re engaged in hyperbole or being dramatic about it because most of human society is about how we can be of use to each other. This is always the command. For a lot of time, this was separated by gender. If she lives in the era before washing machines and grocery stores, there’s a lot of work to making food, making clothes, and taking care of the kids. That is someone’s full-time job in a way that it isn’t anymore. For a lot of human society, we just gendered people. It was a way of dividing labor.
There’s so much work to do, and there’s never enough people to do the work, “How do we find workers? How do we find ways?” It then gets built into the religion that we are a part of a community, that we should be figuring out what our strengths are and how that complements somebody else’s weakness. That’s a very old concept. I’m an invalid individualist, but there is something compelling about the notion of how we can be of service to each other and how we become a community.
I’ll make two comments and then finish with a question for you, John. One is that notion of what, especially freeing for women, has been the role of technology. You talked about dishwashers, refrigerators, washing machines, and assembly lines that can make clothing, etc. What’s interesting is that also is the solution to our depopulation, which I bring up in that previous episode, is, “Will enough innovation and technology make it so much easier to have a family that people will be able to do it in a way that they find difficult now with two people working in a household and so on?” We’ll see. I’m reluctant to make predictions. I’d rather make judgments at this moment.
The other one is to foreshadow a forthcoming episode on Sweden. I was in Sweden, examining why Stockholm, in particular, is the singles capital of the world. I’ve found an academic who has a book about the Swedish theory of love. To foreshadow this, he talks about this individualistic society, Sweden, which also has a strong state that cares for the individual. He talks about how Sweden keeps these two balls in the air simultaneously. They seem like they would be at odds with each other, but they’re not.
He does a nice bit of myth-busting that you can have a society that supports individuals while also having those individuals support society. I’m eager to learn more about it. The book is in the mail. We’ll find out more about it. Here’s the last thing I wanted to ask you about. What was it that you found surprising about this project? You spent years of your life researching and writing it. Evidently, it was good enough to get you out of your PhD and into academia. What stood out to you as surprising? What is it that we’ve missed? What have I overlooked in terms of talking about the Citizen Bachelor, this paradox of this time period?
There are two things. Here’s the argument I wanted to make or ended up making in the book, and this is probably where the wheels come off the wagon. I was fascinated by what happens in Pennsylvania. You write this new constitution that says if you’ve paid taxes, you can vote and disenfranchises a bunch of single men. The thing I find interesting is the argument that’s being made there is about commensurate citizenship. If you pay taxes and are supporting the state, you deserve a right to vote. You should have a say in who the leaders are, how things are run, and what laws are made.
Women will make the exact same arguments. Not that many years later, African-Americans make a similar argument as well. Those arguments are still powerful when we talk about citizenship, who has the right to vote, and who has the right to have a voice in society. I’m not going to say that bachelors invent all of this.
If you want to find the earliest place in the history of the United States where a group saying, “We have rendered responsibility. We’ve done something for the state. The state owes us something in return,” they set a model in a way that makes sense to a lot of people. Other groups use it much more effectively and to good ends. The end is very good. Ending slavery and giving women the right to vote are good things. We overestimate the importance of the family in the past. When we get too far in the past, we want to imagine that it’s Harry Potter land. It’s castles and dragons, and everyone is living in chains. The past is not that.
The individual has always had a place. At least in Anglo-American society, and I would venture to say other societies as well, we shouldn’t assume if we look to the past that everyone’s married, that there is no place for the unmarried, and that the bachelor isn’t saying things like, “This sucks. I shouldn’t have to pay a higher tax. I shouldn’t have to go to war just because I’m not married.” We see these in the past. We limit ourselves by assuming that this notion of singlehood or the power of unmarried people of people on their own is something that’s very present because it has a much longer past, longer even than the Colonial Period. We do ourselves a disservice to give a short trip to the past.
I appreciate you saying that. First of all, I’m not a historian. When you look at the past, it’s a long and complicated past. This idea of the value the single person brings could reach back to a lot of different times in history. First of all, single people built the pyramids. Single people built almost any great world wonder. It was made by single people because they were made by slaves oftentimes.
You see contributions, whether the men who were on the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria were probably mostly single men. The world explorers, the men on the Magellan ship, were single men, etc. I don’t know if Lewis and Clark were single, but I bet you they were. You can start to pick this out. Some of it is the nature of the freedom that comes from not having a family to be able to dedicate it to other practices besides having children, tilling the land, working a job, in a factory, or in a university, whatever that might be.
Not to step on your comment there, but to bring it back to where we started, that liminal identity or the single identity is so interesting because, unlike race, sex, and a lot of identities, it is something that can change in an instant. That makes it a very slippery identity to try to get your hands around because, at any moment, a single person can become a married person. The reverse is also true.
John, that’s a wonderful place to end. I appreciate you writing this book. I appreciate the time that you’ve spent with us. Cheers.
- John McCurdy
- Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States
- The Canterbury Tales
- Is Depopulation a Problem and are Singles to Blame? – Previous Episode
About John McCurdy
John Gilbert McCurdy is Professor of History at Eastern Michigan University.
McCurdy is the author of Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution (Cornell, 2019). Quarters was named 2019 Book of the Year by the Journal of the American Revolution and received the 2019 Book Award Honorable Mention from the American Revolution Round Table of Philadelphia. McCurdy is also the author of Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States (Cornell, 2009). He has published articles in The Cambridge World History of Violence, The Journal of Urban History, and The New York Times.
McCurdy received his Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis in 2004. He also holds an M.A. from the University of Chicago and B.A. from Knox College. McCurdy has received fellowships including ones from the British Library, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the University of Michigan.
McCurdy has taught at Eastern Michigan University since 2005. He has been nominated for several teaching awards and he received the Faculty Scholarship Award in 2010. He regularly teaches courses in colonial and Revolutionary America, as well as the gender and sexuality. He currently serves as History Graduate Coordinator.