Thursday, October 1, 2009

Over The Threshold

Over The Threshold

Christine Daniels and Michael V. Kennedy, eds., Over the Threshold: Intimate Violence in Early America (New York: Routledge, 1999). If all you have been exposed to are feminist critiques of American society as a brutal land of thugs where every man beats his wife (and more than a few continue on to murder) to the backslapping approval of the rest of the patriarchy--you may find this book worth reading.

It's a collection of essays, some more readable than others. Christine Daniels' overview is written in a style that must make her very popular in academic circles, awash in discussions of class, violence, and race. But she makes some points that those of you who have sat through classes on gender studies probably never heard: that wife-beating was not generally legal, and the often cited state supreme court decision to the contrary, Bradley v. State (Miss. 1824) was very much the exception.

In reading the two out of three pages that I can actually find of Bradley, it appears that the Mississippi Supreme Court indicated that while the common law allowed "moderate chastisement" of a spouse "in cases of great emergency" they upheld the judgment of the lower court that allowed prosecution of the husband for assault and battery to go forward. They also indicated their disapproval of domestic violence:
However abhorent to the feelings of every member of the bench, must be the exercise of this remnant of feudal authority, to inflict pain and suffering, when all the finer feelings of the heart should be warmed into devotion, by our most affectionate regards, yet every principle of public policy and expediency, in reference to the domestic relations, would seem to require the establishment of the rule we have laid down, in order to prevent the deplorable spectacle of the exhibition of similar cases in our courts of justice.
Some of the chapters are so awash in PC-speak as to be hard to take seriously. Edward E. Baptist's "'My Mind Is to Drown You and Leave You Behind': 'Omie Wise,' Intimate Violence, and Masculinity" keeps harping on the role that the emerging market economy of the nineteenth century played. The claim is that as the poorest white men in the backcountry South became less and less able to own land of their own, they were reduced to demonstrating mastery over the only victims below them: their wives. Yet as others have pointed out, the Scots-Irish tradition of patriarchal dominance of their women well predates the market revolution of the nineteenth century. Baptist also seems to have missed that such abuse could be found across multiple socioeconomic layers, and in societies where there is no market economy at all. The need to reduce all of history to economic forces--reducing individuals to mere pawns on the chessboard--is not a healthy method of understanding history. A bit more use of statistical data would correct such oversimplifications.

Randolph A. Roth's essay "Spousal Murder in Northern New England, 1776-1865" is the reason that I borrowed this book from the library. Professor Roth has been gathering data on violent crime throughout American history for a number of years now, and when he found out about the project on which I am now working, he told me that this chapter mentions that the opening of state mental asylums in New Hampshire and Vermont had caused a decline in domestic murders. This isn't surprising, really. While much domestic violence and murder has nothing to do with mental illness, some of it quite clearly does. Early identification and institutionalization of both men and women with violent mental illness, not surprisingly, should reduce domestic murders. Roth's chapter, unlike some of the others, is full of statistics from which he draws conclusions--a noticeable improvement over Baptist's chapter.

G.S. Rowe and Jack D. Marietta's "Personal Violence in a 'Peaceable Kingdom': Pennsylvania, 1682-1801" is an early version of the research that went into Troubled Experiment, which I have previously discussed. It is unfortunate that when Michael Bellesiles' Arming America came out, gushing about how there was almost no violence in America until Samuel Colt unleashed his six-cylindered serpent into the Garden, that none of those gushing about its brilliance bothered to check work like that by Rowe and Marietta. This chapter compares Pennsylvania murder rates of the Colonial period to other colonies, and to modern Pennsylvania. Had they done so, perhaps some of these reviewers would have asked how Bellesiles missed the existing work on violence rates to come to his conclusions.

Jacquelyn C. Miller's "Governing the Passions: The Eighteenth Century Quest for Domestic Harmony in Philadelphia's Middle-Class Households" is one of those chapters that is very informative--but shows the manner in which bourgeois values have been so demeaned in the academic community that Miller seems unable to recognize that the middle-class aspirational goal of self-discipline was not simply a scheme for separating themselves from the lower classes, but one of the methods by which one became, and stayed middle-class. Self-restraint with respect to alcohol, sexual desire, anger--all of these methods of "governing the passions" play a major part in preventing one from ending up poor or in jail.

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