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Concepts And Practices Of Sexuality In 18th Century Euro-North America

Concepts And Practices Of Sexuality In 18th Century Euro-North America

Concepts And Practices Of Sexuality In 18th Century Euro-North America


(1770s–1840s) Rachel Hope Cleves

Shortly before members of the Constitutional Convention gathered in Philadelphia in May 1787 to write a new frame of government for the United States, a young author named Noah Webster moved to the city of brotherly love and set his own pen to addressing the nascent nation’s challenges. Only a revolution in manners, he argued, more significant than “all the laws of power, or the little arts of national policy,” could secure true independence. The prob – lem, Webster worried, was that the changes to American society he witnessed under way in Philadelphia were pointing in the wrong direction. American women were dressing like French coquettes and American men were behaving like English “bucks and bloods.” Far from improving in morals, the nation appeared to be on the point of losing its virtue.1

Did the United States undergo a sexual revolution during its first decades of independence? Did the rallying cry of liberty extend beyond the statehouse to the bedrooms, barrooms, and barns where the nation’s citizens engaged in their own sessions of congress? An emerging historiographical consensus suggests that the Revolution licensed an expanding range of non-marital and non-normative erotic expression for white youth. On the other hand, the strengthening of the independent American state may have limited the range of sexual expres – sion for people of color, most especially native Americans. If there was a sexual revolution in the early republic (1770s–1840s), historians must consider carefully the geographic and demographic limits of that transformation.

Print Culture The loosening of sexual codes for white men and women can first be observed in the late- eighteenth-century’s growing North American print culture, centered in Philadelphia. As revolutionary sentiments shook up the established hierarchies of colonial society, the impact appeared in the diversified offerings of the port city’s book-importers and presses. Their inventories stretched far beyond political prints that debated the cause of independence or the proper composition of the new state, to more risqué sexual prints, many featuring humorous or sensational representations of same-sex sexuality.2



Clare A. Lyons uses the book advertisements printed in the city’s newspapers, almanacs, and catalogues to track the circulation of homoerotic texts in Philadelphia after the 1750s. British novel Roderick Random, which featured the queer characters Captain Whiffle and Lord Strutwell, proved especially popular in the century’s final decades, and the novel underwent its first local reprint in 1794. Another popular British import, the pornographic Memoirs of a Woman of Plea – sure, featured sex between women as well as between men. Local authors also contributed to the city’s bawdy print culture with texts such as The Philadelphiad, a 1784 pamphlet that illustrated the “modern characters of both sexes” who walked the city’s streets, including sodomitical fops and whores.3

Early national Philadelphia’s best-known local author, Charles Brockden Brown, explored a range of homoerotic possibilities in his novel Ormond, or the Secret Witness (1799). In Long Before Stonewall, literary critic Stephen Shapiro calls Ormond the most radical novel written by an American before 1850. The gothic novel’s main love story takes place not between its endangered heroine, Constantia Dudley, and her sinister male suitor, Ormond, but between Constantia and her girlhood friend Sophia Courtland, who indulges a “romantic passion” for the damsel in distress. After Constantia engages in a long flirtation with Ormond’s cross-dressing sister Martinette, who explains that she feels herself a “stranger to sexual distinction,” the heroine kills Ormond and runs off to live happily ever after with Sophia.4

The sexually ambiguous and gender-bending character of Martinette is hardly unique, however, to revolutionary and early national print culture. Greta LaFleur discovers numerous examples of variant gender and sexual expression in eighteenth-century North American sources, and most especially in texts from the 1790s. Like Lyons, LaFleur examines both texts authored in North America and those accessible through importation and reprinting. John Bennett’s Letters to a Young Lady, which circulated in North America after 1791, included lengthy attacks on “effeminate” men and “virago” women, both of whom threatened to upset the proper conduct of heterosexual relations. Texts about the gender-switching spy Chevalier d’Eon, who lived as a man for the first half of his life, then as a woman until she died, likewise enjoyed popularity in North America—and Philadelphia in particular—during the 1790s. LaFleur specu lates that d’Eon served as the inspiration for battle-hymn-of-the-republic composer Julia Ward Howe’s incomplete 1840 novel The Hermaphrodite, featuring a character like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando who changes sex throughout the novel.

The figure of the female husband appeared far more frequently in revolutionary and early national prints than the hermaphrodite, popping up in newspapers, periodicals, and books, both local and imported. The prototypical female husband character was a working-class woman who had chosen to assume male garb at some time in her youth, then lived her life as a man to the point of marrying another woman, before her sex was accidentally exposed (most often by death or arrest). Female husband stories often alluded to the illicit sexual desires that might have motivated the subject’s sex change, although newspapers and periodicals were constrained by the era’s obscenity laws from stating the lesbian content in these stories. Notably, the female husband was rarely portrayed as an object of hatred or revulsion. Rather she appeared as an anti-hero in most narratives: a disreputable, yet admirable, plucky go-getter unwilling to be subordinated by her society’s strict limits on the boundaries of female behavior.

Women who passed as men to serve in the era’s wars figured as especially popular characters in period prints. Al Young’s work on narratives about the real-life Deborah Sampson, who served as Robert Shurtliff in the American Revolution, and Daniel A. Cohen’s work on narratives about the fictional characters Lucy Brewer and Almira Paul, who supposedly served as sailors during the War of 1812, indicate that allusions to women’s same-sex desire constituted an important element of these tales. Female soldier narratives demonstrated what Cohen calls

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a “playful gender radicalism,” intended to amuse a readership of youth, sailors, and prostitutes (although, no doubt, the old, land-bound, and monogamous also sneaked peeks).5

In general, revolutionary and early national print culture featured more accounts of women than men who crossed gender and sexual boundaries, but exceptions can be found. In a digital exhibit for, Jen Manion discusses a pair of matching tales aimed at youth, “Lucy Nelson; Or, The Boy Girl” (1831) and “Billy Bedlow; or, The Girl-Boy” (1832), which treated male and female gender variance even-handedly. In both stories, the author instructed children about the necessity to correct gender-crossing behavior. As Manion points out, however, young gender-variant readers may have found recognition in these tales and re-imagined the stories’ endings to better suit their own emotional needs.

Anti-masturbation tracts were another genre of early national didactic literature that raised queer possibilities. Historians have long puzzled over why masturbation suddenly came to be perceived as a social problem afflicting youth in the mid-eighteenth century. Perhaps it had something to do with the expanding expression of same-sex desire at the time. As pioneer historians of sexuality Vern Bullough and Martha Voght argued in a 1973 article, masturbation and homosexuality often overlapped in religious and medical literature. British author Samuel Solomon’s Guide to Health (1800), an extended advertisement for the author’s anti-masturbatory patent medicine the “Cordial Balm of Gilead,” warned that children often learned mastur – bation from school friends or same-sex instructors. American experts during the 1830s, such as Boston doctor Samuel Bayard Woodward, related similar concerns. Woodward argued that children should be discouraged from sharing beds in boarding schools and factory dormitories to cut down on mutual masturbation. The surprisingly explicit treatment of same-sex intimacy, even between girls, in these respectable tracts confirms historian April Haynes’ observation that “antimasturbation discourse legitimized almost any type of public sexual speech.”6 It is hardly surprising that pornographers took advantage of this leeway, leaving a legacy of textual confusion between sources intended to instruct and those designed to titillate.

Revolutionary Youth Did early national society share the queer possibilities found in its dynamic print culture? The first wave of Revolutionary social history, published during the 1970s and 1980s, focused attention on the era’s gender reformations, as seen in the rise of companionate marriage, republican motherhood, and the affective family.7 As historians debated whether these devel – opments yielded a revolution for women, however, they skirted over concurrent social de – velopments that pointed away from the heterosexual family. Since 2000, a growing body of work has suggested that many women in the revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods sought to avoid marriage and motherhood, pursuing personal liberty as single women, despite their limited earning power and legal rights.

Lee Virginia Chambers-Schiller’s 1984 social history Liberty, a Better Husband offers a foundation for this new scholarship by demonstrating the huge uptick of unmarried Ameri – can women after the Revolution. Whereas only 2–3 percent of New England women during the colonial era remained unmarried for life, that figure rose to over 22 percent by 1870. The critical turning point came in the 1780s.8 More recently, Martha Tomhave-Blauvelt has asserted that many young women in the post-revolutionary period feared marriage as an end to their freedom, a change in status that would entail endless labor as well as repeated exposure to the grave physical dangers of pregnancy and childbirth. Some chose to remain single for the attractions that the unmarried life provided, in particular the opportunity to focus on

Revolutionary Sexualities (1770s–1840s)




intimacies with other women. Lisa L. Moore’s recent work on Sarah Pierce, founder of Con – necticut’s Litchfield Academy, discusses this early woman educator’s dream of creating a household with fellow Litchfield-native Abigail Smith. Pierce exchanged letters with Smith’s brother, doctor and writer Elihu Hubbard Smith, discussing their mutual aversion to heterosexual marriage. According to Moore, “Connecticut of the 1790s provided a context of sexual liberation, [and] antimarital gender egalitarianism.”9

Such sentiments may have flourished among Pierce’s set of literary men and women friends, but it cannot be said to have extended generally throughout post-revolutionary America, which remained aggressively pro-conjugal. The rejection of marriage and maternity should be understood, in and of itself, as a queer choice for women of the time, whether or not an erotic interest in other women went alongside. Following this logic, Kathryn Kent writes about the mid-nineteenth-century spinster as an “emergent, queer, protoidentity,” a conclusion echoed in work by Heather Love.10

Many women who married nonetheless participated in the cultural revolution in attitudes towards sexuality by pushing back against what historian Susan Klepp calls the “enslavement” of a lifetime of childbearing. Newly politicized women demonstrated their capacity for citi – zenship by exercising the masterful art of self-restraint, particularly in physical relations with men. New brides in the mid-Atlantic states resisted old customs that dictated they endure being kissed by all the male attendants at their weddings. More importantly, new wives resisted dic – tates to bear as many children as fate delivered. Instead, women self-administered abortifacient herbs and restricted their sexual relations, often over their husbands’ objections. By the 1830s, the demand for family planning had led to the expansion of contraceptive choices in the United States, with female syringes and male condoms both becoming more widely available.11

Not all men resisted these attacks on reproductive sexuality. A sizable number also chose singlehood. Sarah Pierce’s friend Elihu Smith stayed a bachelor until he died at age twenty- seven in the arms of friends Samuel Latham Mitchill and Edward Miller. The Revolution inspired new and vigorous defenses of the single life. During the Colonial era, Thomas Foster argues, bachelors were stigmatized as deviant sexual types who disrupted the marital order. After the Revolution, according to John McCurdy, the new state government abolished laws that had targeted bachelors as subjects of regulation and special taxation. Changes in attitudes toward bachelorhood fit with the increasingly commonplace role of sexual experimentation in American youth culture. Diaries kept by a handful of Virginia bachelors in the 1780s and 1790s describe a “world charged with sexual opportunity and activity.” Often that activity was heterosexual, but sometimes it was not, which caused concern for moral authorities. The argument made by a bachelor essayist in the American Universal Magazine that if instead of marrying women, “we could make it convenient . . . to marry one another, perhaps the married state might be less tormenting,” gave credence to long-held suspicions that bachelors had queer tendencies.12

Those tendencies found expression in the fad for romantic friendships that spread during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In this form of relationship, promoted by transatlantic sentimental literature, unmarried youths shared intense same-sex attachments char acterized by expressions of deep love and devotion. A historiographical debate has long raged over the question of whether such intimacies should be understood as sexual. Caroll Smith-Rosenberg’s field-defining article “The Female World of Love and Ritual” (1975) and Lillian Faderman’s chapter on romantic friendships in Surpassing the Love of Men (1981) shared in an early consensus that the relationships were not erotic except in rare exceptions. These early works inspired vociferous reactions in the 1990s from scholars such as Lisa L. Moore and Marylynne Diggs, who offer strong evidence that not only were some romantic friendships

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sexual, but the potential for erotic expression within these relationships was well understood at the time.

Scholars of men’s romantic friendships have also challenged Smith-Rosenberg’s and Faderman’s claims that romantic friendships were specific to women and emerged from nineteenth-century constructions of femininity. Yet here too are debates over the presumed asexuality of such relationships. For example, literary critic Caleb Crain describes the revolutionary-era intimacy between Philadelphia bachelors John Fishbourne Mifflin, James Gibson, and Isaac Norris as “a fortiori sexual,” whereas the historian Richard Godbeer des cribes the triad as bound by platonic affection. Godbeer directs readers to set aside “modern assumptions about love between members of the same sex” and accept that men could forge deep emotional ties without concurrent sexual desire. Godbeer’s caution extends even to his reading of a seemingly indiscrete letter from Brown College student Virgil Maxcy to his friend William Blanding. Maxcy, who had previously shared a bed with his friend, wrote to Blanding bemoaning their separation, “for I get to hugging the pillow instead of you. Sometimes I think I have got hold of your doodle when in reality I have hold of the bed posts.” Blanding signed his letter “your cunt humble.” This letter might read like a smoking gun, but Godbeer disagrees, concluding simply, “one cannot help but wonder.”13

There seems little room to debate about the sexual content in the letters between South Carolinian college students Thomas Jefferson Withers and James Henry Hammond, penned in the 1820s. These are so explicit that when Martin Duberman originally sought to publish the documents the archive denied him permission. He went forward anyway, analyzing the letters in a landmark 1981 article in the Journal of Homosexuality. In the first letter Withers writes “I feel some inclination to learn whether you yet sleep in your Shirt-tail, and whether you yet have the extravagant delight of poking and punching a writhing Bedfellow with your long fleshen pole—the exquisite touches of which I have often had the honor of feeling?” In the second, Withers speculates that during their separation Hammond has been wielding his “elongated protuberance . . . at every she-male you can discover.” This second letter indicates that close friendships served as a theatre of possibility not only for same-sex sexual behavior, but also for the development and expression of queer identities. Withers’s “she-male” fits into a queer lineage extending backwards in time to the eighteenth-century sodomitical fops from Roderick Random, and forwards in time to the sexual inverts found in the writings of late nineteenth-century sexologists, like Richard von Krafft-Ebing.14

Evidence of same-sex behavior and identity can likewise be found in the letters between Massachusetts-born Charity Bryant and her romantic friends during the late eighteenth century. Bryant’s correspondence might have escaped close inspection if not for the remarkable marriage she later established with Sylvia Drake in Weybridge, Vermont, which lasted from 1807 to 1851. Viewed from the perspective of her subsequent union, Bryant’s earlier friendships can be seen as instrumental in the development of her lesbian persona. Letters written by Bryant’s friends (she instructed recipients to burn the ones she authored), describe the joys of sleeping in each other’s arms and of pressing heads to breasts, in an act that historian Karen Hansen, writing about a post-Civil War female couple, has called “bosom sex.”15 At rare moments, the surviving letters hint at genital intimacies and suggest Bryant’s formation of a sexual identity focused on giving pleasure rather than receiving. This assumption of an active male role, as it was understood at the time, resonated with Bryant’s later identity as the female husband within her marriage to Drake. It is also in keeping with the sexual practices of Anne Lister, the contemporaneous British gentlewoman whose coded diaries offer historians the most explicit window onto lesbian sexuality at the time.16

Revolutionary Sexualities (1770s–1840s)




Law and Society17

Tight restraints on sexual speech for respectable citizens, especially women, limit the extent of direct textual evidence we have of individuals’ erotic experiences during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This holds true particularly for same-sex experiences, which remained under powerful social proscriptions. However, if same-sex lovers risked their repu – tations by inscribing too explicit declarations of mutual desire in their letters, for the most part they did not risk the graver punishments that had haunted colonial-era offenders. As colonies became states and British institutions were reinvented for American independence, the Revolution unleashed a wave of legal reforms, which disarmed capital statutes regulating sodomy.

Recent work by B. R. Burg, one of the founders of gay history, indicates that this wave of legal change began, as most waves do, at sea, and only later swept the land. In 1775, John

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Figure 2.1 Silhouettes of Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant framed with locks of their hair. Collection of Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, Middlebury, Vermont.



Adams drafted a set of regulations for the new navy of the United Colonies, which broke from British precedent by omitting the provision to punish buggery and sodomy with death. Adams’s omission was sustained by several subsequent updatings of the US naval code, and no trials for sodomy took place within the American navy until 1805. Those charges resulted in no punishment for the accused; neither did charges in an 1835 case. The testimonies in the latter case, however, did reveal a well-developed same-sex subculture within the antebellum US navy, involving relations between young “chickens” and older sailors, who went “chaw for chaw” (mutual masturbation) or engaged in anal sex.18

Changes to legal codes within the new states followed soon after independence. Pennsylvania downgraded sodomy from a capital crime to one punishable by imprisonment in 1786. New York and New Jersey did the same in 1796, followed by Rhode Island (1798), Massachusetts (1805), and Connecticut (1821). In the South, Thomas Jefferson proposed revising Virginia’s legal code in 1777 to punish male sodomy through castration and female sodomy by nose- boring, but the punishment was not reduced until 1800 (when it was replaced with imprison – ment). Maryland began punishing sodomy with hard labor in 1793. Georgia strangely had no sodomy statute at all until it instituted a punishment of life imprisonment in 1816. In 1826, Delaware instituted the least severe punishment for sodomy of any state—a maximum jail time of three years, plus the already-archaic practice of flogging. Later Delaware brought back the pillory for convicted sodomites, harkening back to the seventeenth century. Only a few states retained capital punishment for sodomy until after the Civil War, including North and South Carolina. Many southern states applied differential harsher punishments for slaves than for free people. Despite its early liberalism, Virginia continued to define sodomy as a capital crime for slaves until the Civil War. Finally, with a few exceptions, the new states that entered the union after the Revolution punished sodomy through imprisonment.19

The lightening of statutory punishments for sodomy was matched by an easing of the laws’ application. During the early national era, prosecutions for sodomy were very rare, continuing a trend from the colonial era. Already by the 1760s, prosecutions for all sexual crimes were on the decline. The loosening of sexual regulations provoked anxiety on the part of many old- fashioned moralists, which may explain the two surprising capital sentences for bestiality handed down in New England during the 1790s, the first in the region for over a century. Neither sentence, however, was carried through. As Doron S. Ben-Atar and Richard D. Brown argue, these prosecutions proved to be the last gasp of the old order, not a sign of things to come. The Revolution’s expansion of personal liberties for free citizens had extended its reach to the sexual realm.

Both Mark E. Kann and Kelly A. Ryan have argued, however, that social regulation of sexuality picked up where legal regulations slackened. Ryan points to how elites in Massachusetts used strategies of wealth and race-based segregation to regulate sexuality within the family after the state’s laws relaxed. Popular seduction narratives contributed to the social regulation of sexuality by emphasizing the values of female purity and passionlessness. Kann argues that the same social regulation of sexuality for the preservation of patriarchy took place nationally.

Slaves and Natives20

The Revolution’s impact on the sexual lives of slaves and Native Americans does not fit well under the rubric of expanding personal liberty. Most contemporary historians of slavery agree that the Revolution ultimately strengthened American commitment to the institution by expanding access to lands that reinvigorated its profitability. Throughout the early national era, increasing numbers of women and men became subject to slavery and to the patterns of sexual

Revolutionary Sexualities (1770s–1840s)




exploitation that feminist historians have described as part of slavery’s burden. Most research has focused on free white men’s sexual domination of enslaved women through practices including rape, concubinage, and forced “breeding.” Yet there is also evidence that free white women’s abuse of female slaves could include erotic dimensions. Runaway slave Harriet Jacobs memoir of her sexual victimization by her master Dr. James Norcom, which offers one of the most lucid windows into this painful history, contains evidence of white women’s role in sexual abuse. When Norcom’s wife grew suspicious of her husband’s relationship to Jacobs, she began sneaking up to Jacobs’ bed at night and imitating her husband’s voice to whisper sexual propositions in Jacobs’ ear and judge the girl’s reaction. Jacobs experienced this treatment as a sexual violation on a par with Norcom’s own insistence on harassing her with sexual language.21

Scholars have been slower to explore the sexual abuse of male slaves. A recent article by Thomas Foster re-examines the research to call attention to the victimization of enslaved men by both white women and men. Testimony to the American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission, convened in 1863, suggests that light-skinned enslaved men were fetishized, like their female counterparts, as sexually desirable. And a small handful of sources, including Harriet Jacobs’ memoir, document white men’s use of rape as a means to dominate enslaved men. As John Saillant suggests, white abolitionists, though not guilty of sexual abuse, also sometimes utilized homoerotic undertones in their writings on the enslaved male body.

The source base offers no evidence for reconstructing volitional same-sex intimacies among enslaved people. Although such relations must have taken place, they were of little interest to the literate whites whose writings provide the majority of evidence about the history of the peculiar institution. White authors did express interest, on the other hand, in the role that same-sex sexuality played in indigenous societies across North America. This evidence of sexual savagery, as white observers understood it, became another rationalization for conquering na tive peoples and imposing white authority. The strengthening of the American state in the wake of the Revolution, and the consequent extension of control over ever greater stretches of native land between the 1770s and 1840s, entailed a loss not only of indigenous sovereignty but also of sexual expression.

Many of the native societies that American settlement overspread during these decades of vigorous western expansion permitted the expression of sexualities and gender identities that would be judged queer today, although they may have been normative within their own cul – tures. Historians have focused particular attention on the role of two-spirits (a modern term), or individuals whose social sex differed from their embodied sex. Two-spirits often took spouses of the same biological sex, a practice that generated repeated expressions of shock within settler accounts. While indigenous languages used many different words to describe two-spirits, Anglo – phone scholarship has often referred to native men who lived as women as berdaches, an archaic term derived from an Arabic word for a boy prostitute. No single English word was applied as consistently to native women who lived as men, suggesting that the disproportionate concern within settler society over sexual conduct between males, versus between women, extended outwards.

Source limitations have resulted in vigorous debates among historians about both the extent and meaning of two-spirit identities. For example, only one anonymous source from the 1820s explicitly records the presence of two-spirits within the Cherokee nation, producing an evi – dentiary puzzle that Gregory D. Smithers unravels in a 2014 article. Far more extensive sources record the presence of two-spirits among southwestern indigenous groups such as the Zuñi and Apache, but scholars debate whether they were figures of respect or ridicule.22

There can be no debate that settler cultures regarded two-spirits with disdain. After the Revolution, when the United States initiated a “civilization program” to force the acculturation

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