Those Sexy Puritans

If there was a sexual revolution in early America, it was not because people had revolutionary ideas about sex. In their new communities the settlers made sex outside marriage illegal, as it had been in the world they left behind. But the New World presented new situations that invited defiance or reconsideration of conventional restraints, and Richard Godbeer looks at the results in a book that shows how sex inside and outside marriage helped to shape American society. In three of the places he examines, the usual limitations on sex outside marriage simply did not work.

On southern tobacco and rice plantations many masters felt that their ownership of slaves carried an exemption from any rules about having sex with them. Thomas Jefferson, we now know, acted as if he had such an exemption, and so did his father-in-law: Jefferson’s wife could count six siblings among her father’s slaves. No one in Virginia offered to defend such lapses and respectable people felt uncomfortable even talking about them. In South Carolina, on the other hand, where the majority of the population was enslaved, the presence of dark-skinned children resembling their owner was too common to cause embarrassment. “Charlestonians,” Godbeer tells us, “discussed this aspect of their sexual lives with a frankness that would have been inconceivable in the Chesapeake.” Both colonies enacted laws forbidding miscegenation as well as extramarital sex, but prosecution of highly placed offenders was unthinkable.

A wholly different disregard for the recognized rules could be found in the Carolina back country, where, in the absence of magistrates and ministers, the inhabitants engaged in do-it-yourself marriage and divorce, or lived, as the Virginia diarist William Byrd observed, “in comfortable fornication.” Since relationships could be made and broken at will, the distinction between marital and extramarital sex was hard to find. Couples who considered themselves married gave little attention to how they got that way. As Godbeer puts it, “The very reason so many couples saw premarital sex as unproblematic was that they considered private declarations to be more significant than public confirmation of their relationship.” They continued to feel that way until eastern institutions of law and order overtook them.

Yet another departure from recognized norms occurred along the frontiers when fur traders made matches with Indian women. Indians recognized marriage, and different tribes had their own rules about what it signified, but an exclusive right to sex was not generally one of them. Traders who took Indian wives in Indian territory were obliged to follow Indian rules.

In some locations the society’s official restrictions gained reinforcement from a fear on the part of whites that intercourse with blacks or Indians might somehow reduce them to the barbaric status they assigned to people of the wrong color. Occasionally some outsider might propound the desirability of intermarriage as a social policy, but those actually engaged in it did not mount a reasoned defense of it or of any kind of sex outside marriage. Indeed there are only sporadic records…

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