Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

Manhood, Immortality, and Politics during the American Founding

Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

Manhood, Immortality, and Politics during the American Founding

Article excerpt

A woman may live a whole life of sacrifice, and at her

death meekly says, "I die a woman." But a man passes a

few years in experiments of self-denial ... and he says,

"Behold I am a God."

Abigail Alcott(1)

For males, late eighteenth-century individualism promised greater liberty and mobility but fostered growing: fear of death and disorder. Phillipe Aries suggests that pre-modern men did not dwell on death because they shared a sense of collective destiny. They were socialized to accept nature's order and identify with enduring communities. By contrast, modern men put a premium on self and material interest. They emphasized the conquest of nature and migrated from natal communities to market centers. Mortality was a frightful enemy that destroyed individuality and its achievements. Aries concludes that death became "a transgression" that ruptured the fabric of individual lives and plunged men into "an irrational, violent ... world."(2)

Individualism also projected a specter of public disorder. The rhetoric of liberty and equality threatened to free men's passions and interests from traditional restraints, prompting thinkers to dwell on "the man question": How could passionate, greedy men reconcile liberty and public order to avert the twin evils of anarchy and tyranny? Albert Hirschman maps modem theorists' attempts to design mechanisms to neutralize men's passion, elevate reason over passion, and harness passion to predictable interests. These strategies proved problematic. In particular, thinkers who suggested that individuals' pursuit of material interest could create a web of peaceful interdependence failed to account for conflicts generated by the "wild, boundless" marketplace or for the political fragmentation attendant to "killing the civic spirit."(3)

Individualism was a male phenomenon during the American founding era. "When influential thinkers of the late eighteenth century pondered the growing claims of the self," E. Anthony Rotundo writes, "they thought only of the male self." A few writers such as Judith Sargent Murray applied individualist norms to women but their voices were subdued by patriarchal laws and customs that required women to sacrifice desire and interest to their families and nation. This conjuncture of male self-interest and female self-sacrifice was legitimized by contract theories that justified men's possessive individualism and an implicit "sexual contract" that perpetuated women's subordination. The political result, Joan Hoff explains, was that the founders framed a U.S. Constitution that recognized male autonomy but presumed women's selfless devotion to men.(4)

Women's separation from individualism had two effects. First, women retained a more accepting view of death. Their biological role as mothers to the living and social role as caretakers of the dead fostered what Mary O'Brien calls a "continuous" temporal consciousness, a sense of "genetic continuity." Situated in intergenerational time, women sustained the sense of collective destiny that robbed death of its frightfulness and finality. On the other hand, men's individualism motivated them to initiate symbolic efforts to defeat death, for example, by performing heroic deeds that promised to reward them with "deathless fame." Thomas Paine recognized this gender difference. He argued that women who contributed to their families and nation wanted some public esteem, whereas men exhibited an "ambitious vanity" manifested in a desire "to cover the earth with statues, with monuments, and with inscriptions to eternalize [their] names and give [them]selves an existence when the body is no more."(5) Women sought appreciation in life; men craved immortality beyond the grave.

Second, women's separation from individualism insulated them from most blame for public disorder. The founders did employ traditional images of "disorderly women" and destructive female vices. …

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