pipeLiberty and justice for all! What a great aspiration. Too bad it didn’t apply to single people in the American colonies.

Stanford sociologist Michael J. Rosenfeld, author of The Age of Independence, has a thing or two to say about singlism in early American history. Here are just a few historical gems (from this review) that make me happy to be living in the 21st century:

  • “…in several colonies it was illegal for young adults to live on their own.”
  • “Bachelors in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were (save for special exceptions granted by colonial leaders) required, subject to imprisonment, to marry, move in with an established family, or leave the colony” [my emphasis]
  • “Married people separated from their spouses were ordered to send for them.”

All of these constraints were part of “family government,” which at the time was more powerful than colonial governments. By keeping single people under the thumb of families – either their own or the families where they worked as servants – the older generations made sure that traditional family norms were perpetuated.

During the Industrial Revolution in America, all sorts of major changes swept the nation. They included “the decline of farming, the growth of cities, the rise of divorce, public school’s encroachment into the education of the young, increasing life spans, and the decline of fertility.” That led lots of scholars to suggest that the Industrial Revolution remade the American family.

Professor Rosenfeld disagrees. He documents that during all that time, there were hardly any interracial marriages, same-sex unions, or unmarried cohabiting relationships. Not until the late 20th century did we start to see big increases in these non-traditional ways. He believes that young adults continued to behave in traditional family ways for so long because they were still under the control of their parents and other relatives. Most importantly, they were usually living under the same roof.

Once young adults started leaving home in large numbers, for school or work or other pursuits, and also began to live on their own or with people other than relatives, all hell broke loose. To our contemporaries, inter-racial marriage is ho-hum, cohabitation is ordinary, and the same-sex marriage issue is no longer packing the political punch it once did. Now if only they could get used to the idea that there are single people who love their single lives and are not looking to become unsingle. Well, as least we single-at-heart types aren’t getting locked up anymore.

Colonial family image available from Shutterstock.