Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History

Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History

Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History

Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History

Synopsis

Brothers and sisters are so much a part of our lives that we can overlook their importance. Even scholars of the family tend to forget siblings, focusing instead on marriage and parent-child relations. Based on a wealth of family papers, period images, and popular literature, this is thefirst book devoted to the broad history of sibling relations, spanning the long period of transition from early to modern America. Illuminating the evolution of the modern family system, Siblings shows how brothers and sisters have helped each other in the face of the dramatic political, economic, and cultural changes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The book reveals that, in colonial America, siblingrelations offered an egalitarian space to soften the challenges of the larger patriarchal family and society, while after the Revolution, in antebellum America, sibling relations provided order and authority in a more democratic nation. Moreover, Hemphill explains that siblings serve as the bridgebetween generations. Brothers and sisters grow up in a shared family culture influenced by their parents, but they are different from their parents in being part of the next generation. Responding to new economic and political conditions, they form and influence their own families, but theircontinuing relationships with brothers and sisters serve as a link to the past. Siblings thus experience and promote the new, but share the comforting context of the old. Indeed, in all races, siblings function as humanity's shock-absorbers, as well as valued kin and keepers of memory. This wide-ranging book offers a new understanding of the relationship between families and history in an evolving world. It is also a timely reminder of the role our siblings play in our own lives.

Excerpt

Very often interest in history begins at home, sparked by the stories of our parents and grandparents. Perhaps this is why, in thinking about family history, we tend to look back along a family line and generally overlook siblings. Yet brothers and sisters have always played a key role in shaping history. Past or present, most people grow up with siblings, and these are our longest-lasting ties. Brothers and sisters are there before friends, spouses, or children, and generally outlive parents. Siblings occupy the same generation in time; they grow up together, learning about, experiencing, and changing the world they have inherited. And they continue to make history together by passing on their experience as they raise the next generation.

Take the example of a famous early American: Benjamin Franklin. He and his favorite sister, Jane, grew up in a typically crowded Boston household of the early eighteenth century, where they learned the values of their hard-working Puritan parents. Ben ended up an apprentice printer to his brother James, with whom he began to challenge Boston political and religious leaders, before having a quarrel that led Ben to run away to Philadelphia. He stayed in touch with his siblings, however, especially with Jane, even sending her a spinning wheel when she married Edward Mecom. Soon he himself settled down with Deborah Read of Philadelphia. Ben and Jane managed to keep up with each other and consulted on the difficult task of rearing children, including how to pass down family traditions. Over the years they consoled one another at the deaths of their parents, their spouses, some children, and their other siblings. Of course Ben Franklin formed hundreds, if not thousands, of other ties in helping to found the nation, but his letters to Jane became the longest correspondence of this prolific man. While they each had formed their own families, the solidity of their relationship as a bridge between the nuclear family of their birth and those of their making was unshaken. Indeed, when Ben died, Jane’s nieces and nephews were unable, despite their best efforts, to console her. She had lost the sustaining link between her past, present, and future.

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