The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Recent Events

Marriage, Statistics, and the State: Lunch Talk Recap

On Monday, 26 September, Bostonian Society/New England Women's Club Fellow Sarah Kirshen, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, gave a presentation on her dissertation research, “The Family's Values: Marriage, Statistics, and the State, 1800-1909.”  With a background in Public Health, Kirshen has undertaken to write a history of marriage statistics-gathering by state and federal governments, beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s call in 1800 for such information to be collected (a proposal that went nowhere) and ending with the publication of the second national study of marriage in the United States in 1909. Specifically, Kirshen focuses on two waves of activism in support of keeping marriage statistics.

First, during the 1830s and 1840s, there was a push for keeping vital statistics (birth, marriage, and death records) as a function of developing national identity. The advocates of vital statistics saw the keeping of such records as documentation that would provide a means to track individuals family histories as both a public health measure and as a means of developing a national lineage. In 1842, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to pass a vital statistics act, followed by other New England states. For the first time in 1850 the federal census asked about marital status. Kirshen looks at how the implementation of these laws led to the creation of “labor systems” by which the data could be collected and tracked. She also examines how the bureaucratization of marriage changed the meaning of marriage by making state solemnization central to the meaning of marriage in the United States.

The second wave of nineteenth-century activism around marriage appears in the Reconstruction era, when there was widespread national anxiety about changing household forms, particularly because of the new visibility of free black families and the debate over women’s property rights in marriage. Some reformers, specifically, drew upon marriage statistics as an authoritative source by which to argue that the American family was in crisis. They were particularly concerned about the prevalence of divorce, which they attributed to a lack of uniformity in marriage and divorce law nationwide. Thus, both the evidence of the problem (a supposedly newly-high rate in the breakdown of marriage relationships) and its cure (uniformity of marriage record-keeping) were tied up in the collection and analysis of statistics.

During the question and answer period, audience members asked about the influence of anti-Mormonism in the late-nineteenth-century push for marriage registration and the uniformity of state-sanctioned marriage. Kirshen has, as yet, uncovered little direct reference to Mormon polygamy in her research, but acknowledged the possible connection. In response to a question about opposition to vital-statistics gathering, Kirshen described the vocal dissent of Archbishop John Hughes of New York, also a critic of mandatory public schooling. Hughes argued that marriage was a sacred rite, not a state contract, and should not be subject to state oversight.

We wish Kirshen the best of luck with her research moving forward, and anticipate the completion of her dissertation with interest.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 28 September, 2011, 12:00 AM

An Educational Summer @ MHS

More than 500 teachers from across the United States (and Dubai!) will return to school this fall equipped with classroom resources obtained through various workshops at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Educators, as well as a few curious adults, took part in fourteen different workshops offered at the MHS this summer. These lucky participants investigated documents related to a vast array of intriguing characters, events, and issues. Topics on offer included the dilemmas of colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson, daily life during the Siege of Boston, the ratification of the United States Constitution in Massachusetts, women in colonial Boston, and Irish American and African American participation in the Union Army during the Civil War. 

Photograph of educators participating in an MHS workshop at the Forbes House MuseumWhenever possible, education programs at MHS provide educators with opportunities to explore landscapes related to the Society’s documents and artifacts. We were fortunate to take several field trips this summer to locales in Boston and beyond. Participants in our Thomas Hutchinson workshop spent a beautiful summer day exploring the Forbes House Museum and other Hutchinson memorabilia in Milton. (Pictured on left.) While learning about the Siege of Boston, other educators took a tour of Loyalist Cambridge with J.L. Bell that included a stop at Longfellow House - Washington's Headquarters. Where better to see the Constitution in action than at a courthouse? Photograph of educators participating in an MHS workshop at  the John Adams Courthouse in Boston MAOur Constitution workshop participants were able to discuss the ratification process in the elegant surroundings of Boston’s John Adams Courthouse, home of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. (Pictured on right.) Of course, not all of our excursions were land-based. In early August, twenty teachers from the Boston area participated in a workshop at Fort Warren on Georges Island, part of Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area.

Although the majority of our teacher workshops take place in the summer months, the MHS offers occasional workshops throughout the academic year. For a list of upcoming programs specifically for teachers, visit our events calendar or contact the Education Department.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 31 August, 2011, 8:00 AM

The Civil War and Citizenship @ Fort Warren

On 13 August 2011, members of the Education Department spent a beautiful day on Georges Island, part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area.

Our day began with an exploration of Fort Warren, a National Historic Landmark built between 1834 and 1860.  Thanks to its strategic location overlooking the shipping channel into Boston’s inner harbor, the fort became a crucial part of Boston's coastal defense plan during the Civil War. Fort Warren also served as a recruiting and training camp for Massachusetts regiments of the Union Army, as well as a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp. The first prisoners of war, including 155 political prisoners and over 600 military prisoners, arrived in October 1861. Perhaps the most famous Civil War prisoner held at Fort Warren was Alexander H. Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, who was held there from 25 May - 13 October 1865. Enthusiastic visitors can still take a peek into the cell occupied by Stephens during his stay on the island.  Other interesting nooks and crannies to explore include the fort's bakery, the old hospital, and a powder magazine. Brave souls can also explore the dark arch (Bastion A), a former storage area and recreation hall full of mysterious rooms and dim corners best explored by flashlight!

In addition to roaming the fort, we also enjoyed a fantastic talk by Dr. Christian Samito, a practicing lawyer and a faculty member at Boston University School of Law, where he teaches courses on the legal history of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Education staff members have been working with Chris throughout the summer on a series of public programs and teacher workshops related to issues of citizenship and Civil War military service. During this particular talk, which was co-sponsored by the MHS, Chris discussed how African American and Irish American soldiers influenced the modern vision of national citizenship that developed during the Civil War era. By serving in the Union Army, African Americans and Irish Americans demonstrated their loyalty to the United States and strengthened their American identity. While their experiences differed greatly, both groups cited their participation in Union efforts as they advocated for the expansion of citizenship rights after 1865. In the years following the war's end, African Americans gained access to legal and political processes from which they had previously been excluded on the basis of race, and Irish Americans helped to cement recognition of their full citizenship through naturalization. For more information about this topic, pick up a copy of Chris's recent book, Becoming American under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil War Era, published by Cornell University Press.

To learn more about Boston and Fort Warren's role as a site of diplomatic intrigue, join MHS staff members on Georges Island at 1:45 P.M. on Saturday, September 17th, when we present "The Trent Affair." In the fall of 1861, Jefferson Davis sent diplomats James Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana to Europe seeking support and recognition for the Confederacy. Eluding the Union blockade, the Southerners reached Cuba, where they boarded a British mail steamer, the Trent, for passage across the Atlantic Ocean. On 8 November 1861, the ship was seized and its Confederate diplomats imprisoned at Fort Warren.  MHS Education and Library staff members will discuss the details of the event; Mason, Slidell and prisoner life at Fort Warren; and the important role the Trent Affair played in Anglo-American relations. We hope to see you there!

This event will take place on Georges Island. For information about ferry tickets and schedules, please visit the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership website.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Friday, 19 August, 2011, 8:00 AM

Brown-Bag Lunch Talk: “Drops of Grace and Mercy”

On Wednesday, 1 June, past and present fellow Rachel Cope of Brigham Young University gave a brown-bag lunch talk on her current book-length project “Drops of Grace and Mercy: How Women Cultivated Personal Change Through Conversion Processes.” Much of the existing scholarship on the Second Great Awakening of religion in American life focuses on what Cope identifies as external forces. Scholars ask what socioeconomic forces, such as industrialization and migration, precipitated the culture of religious revival life during the first half of the nineteenth century. Cope argues that this emphasis on externalities has lead to an inordinate focus on male participants, since men were most often the visible preachers and organizers. When women appear in the existing scholarship, it is most often in the aggregate, as a demographic very likely to participate in the revivals. In part because of the equation of femininity with spirituality, women’s participation in religious movements has been understood as natural rather than worthy of particular note. Thus, there has been a dearth of critical historical analysis of women’s involvement in revival activities.

Seeking to address this gap in the scholarship, Cope focuses on women’s spiritual experience as religious seekers, asking how and why they came to religious conversion and what women did after they chose a certain spiritual course. Recently, Cope has begun to think about the concept of “agency,” an idea that has a lot of currency in present historical scholarship. When historians speak and write of agency, they are trying to understand the degree of freedom individuals and populations had, within a certain historical context, to make meaningful choices and pursue their desired life course. Because of the emphasis on personal freedom, discussion of agency has often emphasized people whose life choices are radical, people who are obviously pushing the boundaries of what is expected of individuals in their situation. Cope would like to consider not only the agency of exceptional women, but also the agency of women whose spiritual experiences and choices “fit the mold,” or supported (rather than resisted) existing structures. As she says of these women, often “working within the box is [just as] meaningful” as working outside of it.

Discussion following the presentation revolved around how Cope will situate her subjects within broader contexts, even as she focuses on their internal experiences and women’s interpretations of their spiritual lives in diaries, letters, and other forms of autobiographical writing. Those who attended the brown bag asked questions about comparing the female subjects’ writing to the voices of male counterparts; about socioeconomic commonalities among the women who left a spiritual record; about comparisons between religious and non-religious women; and about the possibility of change across time from the early 1800s to the 1850s, when Cope’s research ends.

As Rachel Cope continues her fellowship here, and moves forward with her project thereafter, we wish her the best in forming this valuable contribution to the fields of religious and women’s history.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 8 June, 2011, 8:00 AM

Brian Gratton Presents @ Brown Bag Lunch Talk

On Wednesday, March 16, short-term fellow Brian Gratton presented the preliminary results of his research here at the MHS, working with the papers of Massachusetts politician Henry Cabot Lodge (1850-1924). Dr. Gratton is a Professor of history at Arizona State University, specializing in the history of immigration and ethnicity in the United States, Latin America, and Europe. His work at the MHS explores Lodge’s role within the Republican party in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century debates about race and immigration restriction.

Dr. Gratton used the formal portion of his talk to describe how the rhetoric of immigration restriction in Lodge’s political and personal writing (and speaking) shifted between the late-1880s and the mid-1890s from a near-total silence on the question of race, which Gratton describes as “not eerie -- scary! … [an] almost pure form of political correctness,” to an argument for immigration restriction that relies on “good” and “bad” immigrants based on race and ethnicity.

During the late 1880s, Lodge relied on a primarily economic rationale for immigration restriction, attempting to persuade working-class constituents in Massachusetts that immigration restriction, like tariffs on imported goods, protected their jobs and their wages. Among working class voters, even those who had themselves immigrated or were the children of immigrants, the economic justification for immigration restriction had some limited success. However, the economic frame became problematic because it offered politicians, and their supporters, no way to differentiate between “good” and “bad” immigrants, and ultimately lost them support of those who feared their own ethnic communities would be targeted for restriction.  In the early 1890s, the language shifted subtly to distinguish between groups of immigrants understood to be part of the “founding” or “native” American ethic groups – Anglo-Saxon groups that, with some fancy footwork was amended to include Irish-Americans – and groups of immigrants deemed suspect.  The suspect groups, during this period, would have included Italians, Poles, European Jews, Eastern Europeans, and immigrants from Japan and China.

Dr. Gratton suggest that, on a national scale, the frame shifted from economics to race in stages, whereby first target groups were identified based on their willingness to accept lower wages (at least on its face an economic rationalization), and then gradually the discussion shifted to emphasize the group’s citizenship potential (or lack thereof) and questions of character.  Literacy tests proved a useful way of implementing de facto exclusion by race and ethnicity because the majority of Irish and German immigrants, by the late 1800s, were able to pass the tests, while Southern and Eastern Europeans and Chinese and Japanese immigrants were much less likely to meet the requirements.

Conversation following the presentation focused on the way these shifting discourses concerning race and ethnicity operated within the framework of Massachusetts state politics and on the national stage. Audience members also suggested possible avenues in to discovering the less public version of Lodge’s views on race and ethnicity, perhaps through reading the private writings of family and friends.

If you missed this brown-bag lunch, mark your calendar for April 6, when Dr. Linford Fisher will present "The Land of the Unfree: Africans, Indians, and the Varieties of Slavery and Servitude in Colonial New England."

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 18 March, 2011, 8:00 AM

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