New Men: Manliness in Early America

By Thomas A. Foster | Go to book overview

Preface
MARY BETH NORTON

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term masculinity was coined in 1748. As the insightful essays in this volume show, however, long before that men in North America were thinking about and living out the traits represented by the word: “the assemblage of qualities regarded as characteristic of men; maleness, manliness.” From Captain John Smith in early Jamestown to John Adams in late eighteenth-century Massachusetts, from soldiers and Native warriors who fought early America’s many wars to men who recorded their dreams (and those of others) quietly in their diaries, from Jamaica to New England, colonial men worried about defining and meeting standards of masculinity—regardless of whether they had a word for that characteristic.

Exhibiting manly qualities in early America was a complicated task, as all the men discussed in this book knew. Should one show self-restraint or aggression? Independence or cooperation? Deference or superiority? The answers to those questions depended on circumstances: what behavior worked for a man in one instance would be inappropriate in another. And a man had to recognize which was which. Failure to do so could result in charges by one’s peers that he was somehow less than a man—or worse. Under certain conditions, a perceived lack of manliness could even lead to death.

In a sense, the range of behavioral choices confronting early American men was nothing new: Englishmen and enslaved Africans who sailed to the colonies did not suddenly acquire the attributes and anxieties of manhood somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.1 Native Americans did not learn how to be manly from their contacts with the invaders; their societies had long since developed cultural definitions of what traits men should display and which ones they should eschew if they wished to have the esteem of their peers. Rather, what was “new” about the “new men” of North America were the complex patterns in which such groups interacted with one another. Native standards of manhood conflicted with English standards:

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