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Sexual Revolution in Early America

Paperback
, 448 pages

4 halftones, 1 line drawing

ISBN:
9780801878916
January 2004
Subject:
History
$29.00

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Sexual Revolution in Early America

An Alternate Selection of the History Book Club

In 1695, John Miller, a clergyman traveling through New York, found it appalling that so many couples lived together without ever being married and that no one viewed "ante-nuptial fornication" as anything scandalous or sinful. Charles Woodmason, an Anglican minister in South Carolina in 1766, described the region as a "stage of debauchery" in which polygamy was "very common," "concubinage general," and "bastardy no disrepute." These depictions of colonial North America's sexual culture sharply contradict the stereotype of Puritanical abstinence that persists in the popular imagination.

In Sexual Revolution in Early America, Richard Godbeer boldly overturns conventional wisdom about the sexual values and customs of colonial Americans. His eye-opening historical account spans two centuries and most of British North America, from New England to the Caribbean, exploring the social, political, and legal dynamics that shaped a diverse sexual culture. Drawing on exhaustive research into diaries, letters, and other private papers, as well as legal records and official documents, Godbeer's absorbing narrative uncovers a persistent struggle between the moral authorities and the widespread expression of popular customs and individual urges.

Godbeer begins with a discussion of the complex attitude that the Puritans had toward sexuality. For example, although believing that sex could be morally corrupting, they also considered it to be such an essential element of a healthy marriage that they excommunicated those who denied "conjugal fellowship" to their spouses. He next examines the ways in which race and class affected the debate about sexual mores, from anxieties about Anglo-Indian sexual relations to the sense of sexual entitlement that planters held over their African slaves. He concludes by detailing the fundamental shift in sexual culture during the eighteenth century towards the acceptance of a more individualistic concept of sexual desire and fulfillment. Today's moral critics, in their attempts to convince Americans of the social and spiritual consequences of unregulated sexual behavior, often harken back to a more innocent age; as this groundbreaking work makes clear, America's sexual culture has always been rich, vibrant, and contentious.

Richard Godbeer is a professor of history at the University of California, Riverside.

"According to this meticulously researched study, the Puritan roots of America's sexual mores are deep and surprisingly complex... Godbeer utilizes an impressive array of sources, from private writings, print, and ephemeral materials to court depositions, didactic literature, and official documents for his original research. The result is a valuable contribution to American social history."

"Colonial history will never quite be the same. Sexual Revolution in Early America is the most thorough compendium of sexual incidents, attitudes, laws, and literature in British America before 1800.... This work will be the central reference point for our understanding of sexuality in early America for many years to come. The book has much to offer both the casual and the thoughtful reader."

"Godbeer offers a fresh view of the 'moral and cultural architecture' of early America and the American Revolution through his analysis of sexual mores and behavior... Godbeer's readings are important to readings of early American captivity narratives... [and] has clear implications for feminist literary scholars and queer theorists who focus on questions of agency and transgression."

"Important... Godbeer pays meticulous attention to the details of cultural meaning and practice... The book's regional and chronological range is impressive... and the author's facility with such a wide variety of sources touching on typically private and thus seemingly inaccessible matters might serve as a model for scholars."

"Richard Godbeer challenges our traditional stereotypes of colonial America by recovering a remarkable volume of sexual discussion and debate, prosecution and evasion... In both their sexual excesses and anxieties, Godbeer's colonists seem surprisingly modern and accessible."

"Richard Godbeer's book on sexuality in colonial British America has been eagerly awaited by those of us who had heard or read parts of this project in conference papers or articles. Those presentations had been filled with fresh insight and careful research. His full study has lived up to its promise. His careful, nuanced study is by far the best discussion of colonial sexuality available to scholars. While not slighting discussions of theory, Godbeer has avoided opaque jargon and balanced the theory with vignettes that bring the period and its people to life."

"The first comprehensive history of sexuality in early America. It is based on daunting archival scholarship, particularly in legal records, and attention to the details of social life, but is written with such verve and humanity that many of the personages the author considers here come alive off the page. Many of the sexual dramas Godbeer relates will seem familiar to the modern reader: adulterous lovers, the sexual experimentation of youth, the shame of vice revealed for all to see. But early American society was far more densely leavened with the yeast of Puritanism and moral surveillance than America of the 21st century, so that the contrasts with contemporary sexuality emerge in striking fashion."

"An astute, wide-ranging analysis... This is an excellent piece of scholarship. Based on extensive research in all sorts of printed sources and private documents, and covering much of the territory of British North America, it will likely remain the most detailed treatment of the subject for years to come."

"Readers under the misapprehension that the sexual revolution was one of the many new movements that changed the US in the 1960s should run to the nearest bookstore and buy a copy of Godbeer's Sexual Revolution in Early America. Taking his cue from the numerous historians who have researched and written on the new social history of early America, Godbeer mined innumerable primary and secondary sources to create an accurate portrayal of sex in Colonial America... An excellent narrative of life in early America."

"Godbeer's holistic approach to early American sexual attitudes makes this study fresh. His knowledge of Puritan sexual mores informs his lovely reading of the sensuality of Puritan spirituality and illuminates Puritan sexual subjectivity."

" Sexual Revolution in Early America does bring our focus back to the most basic aspect of human behavior, and it does so in the proper and revealing context of social relations. It also adds a new dimension to the strain of early American historiography that emphasizes the persistence of English folk beliefs."

"Drawing on and synthesizing an impressive array of scholarly and archival sources, Godbeer reconstructs an early American sexual geography that is best characterized, not by a topography of liberation and repression, but by divisions along three overlapping axes of power... The payoff in Sexual Revolution in Early America lies in the details."

"This is a landmark study of early modern sexual attitudes and behavior; it is eloquently written; and it is an important contribution to a growing body of scholarship on early American sexuality... Once again he [Godbeer] proves to be a master at distinguishing between the thoughts and desires of social eleites and the urges and behavior of ordinary folk."

"Richard Godbeer has crafted a well-woven narrative on the ever popular and riveting subject of human sexuality... Sexual Revolution in Early America will stand as a foundational text for the history of sexuality in early American studies."

" Sexual Revolution in Early America is the most comprehensive study of colonial sexuality to date. Scholars, students, and general readers alike will find much to interest them here. Godbeer describes a remarkably varied pattern of sexual theory and practice in British North America, detailing both regional differences and change over time."

"Godbeer's is the first serious assessment of the role of sex in Puritan thought and behavior."

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