Children and Youth in a New Nation

Children and Youth in a New Nation

Children and Youth in a New Nation

Children and Youth in a New Nation


In the early years of the Republic, as Americans tried to determine what it meant to be an American, they also wondered what it meant to be an American child. A defensive, even fearful, approach to childhood gave way to a more optimistic campaign to integrate young Americans into the Republican experiment.

In Children and Youth in a New Nation, historians unearth the experiences of and attitudes about children and youth during the decades following the American Revolution. Beginning with the revolution itself, the contributors explore a broad range of topics, from the ways in which American children and youth participated in and learned from the revolt and its aftermaths, to developing notions of "ideal" childhoods as they were imagined by new religious denominations and competing ethnic groups, to the struggle by educators over how the society that came out of the Revolution could best be served by its educational systems. The volume concludes by foreshadowing future "child-saving" efforts by reformers committed to constructing adequate systems of public health and child welfare institutions.

Rooted in the historical literature and primary sources, Children and Youth in a New Nation is a key resource in our understanding of origins of modern ideas about children and youth and the conflation of national purpose and ideas related to child development.


The best way to know a society, it has been said, is to examine how it treats its most vulnerable members. As a corollary, one might further suggest that how a society treats its children and how it perceives this early stage of life provide valuable clues for understanding that society. Childhood and Youth in a New Nation makes this point convincingly as the essays and primary sources offer many perspectives on childhood in America from the Revolution through the 1840s.

Just as “American history” is not a seamless whole but rather is segmented by multiple distinctions of gender, region, ethnicity, social class, occupation, and religion, so “the history of childhood” is not homogenous but must be built up from the historical experience of many diverse groups. This work conveys that diversity, and the editor has wisely avoided forcing the material into a single procrustean interpretive framework.

Even to note some of the most obvious differences among various groups of children in the early republic is to underscore this heterogeneity of experience. As thousands of native-born families migrated to cities seeking economic opportunity, their children faced the dangers and temptations of urban life, while also embodying the promise of upward mobility through education and white-collar employment. For the more than 2.4 million immigrants who arrived from Germany, Scandinavia, Ireland, and elsewhere from 1820 through the 1840s, children represented an essential source of labor and income. While many of these immigrants moved on to midwestern farms, many others, particularly the Irish, arriving in great numbers after 1840, settled in cities. Crowded into slums, urban immigrant children daily confronted the lure and hazards of the city streets. Immigrant parents worried as their offspring forgot the Old . . .

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