Flexible Gender Roles during the Market Revolution: Family, Friendship, Marriage, and Masculinity among U.S. Army Officers, 1815-1846

By Watson, Samuel | Journal of Social History, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Flexible Gender Roles during the Market Revolution: Family, Friendship, Marriage, and Masculinity among U.S. Army Officers, 1815-1846


Watson, Samuel, Journal of Social History


After nearly thirty years of research, separate spheres, domesticity, and patriarchy remain the dominant conceptual categories in the historiography of gender in nineteenth century America. Despite introducing an array of nuances, scholars have devoted most of their attention to the social construction of female roles, while ideals of masculinity have largely been subsumed under the rubric of the self-made man struggling in the competitive capitalist marketplace. Historians have only just begun to investigate more varied male gender roles and identities.(1) Officers in the United States Army would hardly seem likely candidates for an essay in revisionism. Their most recent chronicler has given their relationships with women little attention, and he briefly dismisses them as conservative advocates of separate spheres for the two genders. The only explicit analyses of military commanders' conceptions of masculinity per se have dealt with the late nineteenth century, when men responded to growing stresses in Victorian gender roles by reasserting the most stereotypically masculine traits of courage and physical prowess. Military officers' functions as directors of organized violence and managers in a bureaucratic hierarchy have always appeared quite compatible with repressed emotions and the subordination of women, and one scholar has suggested that stereotypical Victorianism was almost precisely suited to the supposedly immutable demands of the military mission.(2)

This was not necessarily the case. U.S. army officers' relationships with family members during the "market revolution" in Jacksonian America often circumvented or expanded the limits of the rigid gender roles denoted by the historiographical archetype of separate spheres. Besides acting as affectionate fathers and companionate husbands, a number of soldiers encouraged the business and educational aspirations of their female kin, subverting the constraints and inequities of domesticity. Some officers also participated in a "male world of love and ritual," of intimate but usually platonic relationships between men, in sharp contrast to the emotional repression most of us would probably expect to find in soldiers and Victorian males. The influence of institutional, occupational, and psychological factors prevented military men from internalizing Jacksonian ideals of the self-contained man-on-the-make. Perhaps as a result, officers were sometimes surprisingly open to a less rigid gender division of labor than that embodied in the ideology of the separate spheres. This paper uses the personal correspondence of young U.S. army officers during the years between the end of the War of 1812 and the beginning of the war with Mexico to examine their behavior as sons, brothers, friends, husbands, and fathers, and it relates their occupational position and the motives that encouraged them to take up careers in the army to their attitudes about masculinity and female roles.(3)

We must begin by examining the institutional and occupational circumstances of army life, because they shaped soldiers' understandings of their masculinity in specific and nuanced ways. Career army officers clearly lagged behind civilian society in accepting the ideal and mentalite of self-made manhood. Like men in colonial New England, their ideal of masculinity was one of "communal manhood," in which "a man's identity was inseparable from the duties he owed to his community. He fulfilled himself through public usefulness more than [through] his economic success.... The line between public and private barely existed." The colonial New Englander's role as patriarchal head of household was replicated in the officer's role as troop commander. (In fact, generals referred to their staffs, and particularly their young proteges acting as aides-de-camp, as their "military family.")(4)

The seemingly rigid canons of Jacksonian masculinity melt into ambiguity when applied to army officers and their motives. …

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Flexible Gender Roles during the Market Revolution: Family, Friendship, Marriage, and Masculinity among U.S. Army Officers, 1815-1846
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