"Consider the readings you have done in Brown and Friend, and answer the following question in a three

(full) pages essay. How did notions of masculinity change from the colonial period to the antebellum period in the South?" Masculinity (what it means to “be a man”), far from being a universally understood “fact of life”, is actually a very fluid cultural construction differing remarkably through time and across cultures. The formulation of masculinity in the early history of the United States and its predecessor colonies is no exception to this rule. While the evolution of American masculinity can be difficult to delineate due to the persistence of certain features of colonial masculine identity through to the antebellum period, reconfigurations in the ideological underpinnings of masculinity can nevertheless be identified. Many aspects of masculinity remained constant during the nearly 250 years of Southern history before the Civil War: an emphasis on honor and respectability, the right to carry arms, the equation of servitude with emasculation and, most importantly, the exclusion of slaves and free blacks. Yet a few changes can be discerned. The most salient difference between masculinity as formulated in the colonial period and that formulated in the antebellum period is that the class-based, dual manifestation of colonial masculinity was conflated in later years into one masculinity shared by both classes. In the initial years of the colonial period, upper class elite whites held one set of values and assumptions about what it meant to be a man while lower-class whites, mostly indentured servants and former servants, held a different set of values. The differences between the two groups rested on their respective historical legacies in the old country as well as their everyday experiences as lived out in the English colonial frontier. Elites compared themselves to the landed English gentry and nobility of their mother country and sought

to legitimate their status in the New World by emphasizing their lineage, which often extended back to the earliest years of colonization. As elites, they were also expected, consistent with English custom, to hold office and govern the colony. Honor and respectability were important facets in the very public nature of elite masculinity. Lowerclass whites, on the other hand, had a more practical basis for their conception of manhood as providers and defenders of their family and property. The ability and right to kill any person who threatened their rights as property-owner or head of household were paramount compared to any other determination of their masculinity. The right to bear arms was, therefore, necessary for lower-class whites to maintain their reputation as men. However, elites perceived the existence of an armed, and hence powerful, populace as a threat to their own conception of masculinity as the power-wielding governors of the colony. Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 brought this class conflict to a head and in its aftermath a compromise was reached between the two classes based on mutual recognition of the validity each others’ masculinities (including lower-class whites’ right to bear arms) and the exclusion of slaves and free blacks from any right to express masculinity as lower-class whites conceived it. Laws were passed that systematically denied slaves and free blacks access to those privileges that defined white masculinity, namely property ownership, the right to bear arms and access to white women. Though this compromise allowed for the codification of the racial basis of Southern masculinity, the division of white masculinity by class remained. It was not until the American Revolution that class distinctions became less important, allowing for the formation of a shared conception of masculinity. The Revolution and its ideological

slogan of “all men are created equal” had the effect of “egalitarianizing” masculinity. Additionally, the racial basis of masculinity was strengthened through comparison of the threat of English “enslavement” of Americans to the system of slavery practiced by Americans themselves. Surely, the English denial of American freedom was as emasculating as was a slave-owner’s denial of his slave’s freedom and, therefore, his masculinity. In the post-Revolutionary South, masculinity came to be defined on the same terms for all whites. Individual freedom, property-ownership and the ability and right of a man to defend himself against slights to his own or his family’s honor became hallmarks of Southern masculinity in the antebellum period. Aside from the decreased importance of class to definitions of masculinity, the importance of violence to conceptions of Southern masculinity changed from the colonial period to the antebellum period as well. Lower-class men on the frontiers of colonial Virginia had a very real, practical need to carry guns and exercise violence over others: in the nearly lawless colonial frontier, raids by Indians or fellow colonials against isolated homesteads were common. Violence as a signifier of masculinity was determined by the everyday, lived experience of men. The Revolutionary War only emphasized to men the necessity of the right to bear arms and this facet of masculinity was codified in the new nation’s Bill of Rights. In the antebellum period, however, the importance of violence to masculinity (at least among lower-class whites) ceased to be based on the practical role of man as protector. Laver’s analysis of the militia experience in Kentucky, for example, shows that the symbolic re-enactment of violence (as performed in the militia muster) validated men’s notions of their masculinity through association with the values of their Revolutionary fathers and grandfathers who

had fought for their freedom from England. In effect, the tools of violence became more important as a marker of masculinity than violence itself. Paradoxically, among elites, the right to inflict violence did become an important marker of their masculinity as a practical necessity arising from their experiences as slaveholding planters. In the colonial period, the “patriarchal” nature of elite authority meant a more violent exercise of male authority over women and non-masculine “others” that included slaves and property-less whites. With the stabilization of elite power in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion, a more “paternalistic” style of male authority evolved that de-emphasized violence within the household (partly because of the desire for self-mastery in the maintenance of a masculine identity) at the expense of greater violence in the plantation fields. Even though the spread of evangelical religion in the South after the Revolutionary War sensitized many slave-owners to the situation of their slaves as brethren in Christ, the right of violent exercise of white male power over black slaves remained an important element of Southern masculinity throughout the antebellum period.

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