Manliness and Masculinity

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Concepts of manliness in the dominant culture of eighteenth-century British North America came largely from England. Independence and honor were vital components of manliness in all the colonies of British North America. Independence was probably the more important of the two in the northern colonies, while honor was generally more significant in the southern colonies. "Manly independence" referred to the economic autonomy that came with the ownership of property, generally land. Independence also referred to candor ("manly frankness"); in this era of hierarchy and deference, speaking honestly to one's superiors was a brave act worthy of a man. "Honor" referred to reputation in a face-to-face society, a reputation that had to be maintained in the view of one's (usually male) peers. A man's good name had to be preserved at all costs ("saving face").

A third component of manliness, reason, was considered a defining difference between men and women. "Manly reason," it was thought, enabled men to control their feelings in a way that women could not. This fundamental difference had roots both in the Bible (Adam and Eve) and science (the theory of the humors). From both of those perspectives, men and women were seen as having the same fundamental nature, with men being a superior version of that nature. The idea of superiority provided justification for men's power over women in the eighteenth century.

Age also played a crucial role in the understanding of manliness. A man could control his passions, the thinking went, whereas a boy could not. A boy—and a man lacking self-control—were considered effeminate. Both within the colonial apprenticeship system and in the farming society of early New England, it was important for a teenage boy to live with a man (his father, or his master within the apprenticeship system) from whom he could learn the self-restraint of a man. At the same time, the youth would learn occupational skills from the adult male that in the future would enable him to achieve "a competence"—a reference both to a set of skills and to an ability to support a family competently.

In the mid- to late 1700s, republican ideals became a part of the period's essential understanding of manliness. In many ways, the ideology of the Revolution gave preexisting ideas about manhood a new language and a vital political framework. When republican theory defined "virtue" as a readiness to put the general interest above self-interest, it echoed the concern with "social usefulness" that was already a manly ideal in the face-to-face communities of British North America. The republican concept of "effeminacy" as luxury and self-indulgence was a short step away from the existing idea of effeminacy as a boyish lack of self-control.

A transformation took place in concepts of manliness in the decades surrounding 1800. One fundamental change was in the understanding of how maleness and femaleness differed. No longer seen as better and worse versions of the same substance, men and women were now viewed as fundamentally different in nature. To be manly was to be active, ambitious, rational, and independent. To be womanly was to have keen moral, spiritual, and emotional sensibilities and a strong sense of interdependence. The traditional understanding that men should have power over women remained; however, that power was justified on new grounds. Common wisdom now held that women were naturally domestic and submissive, whereas men—strong, rational, energetic—were naturally dominant.

At the same time, regional differences that already existed in concepts of manliness sharpened. The North during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was emerging as a commercial region in which farmers and artisans produced increasingly for broader markets. The South remained wedded to a semifeudal, single-crop economy based on plantation slavery. In the new commercial milieu of the North, (white) manliness was understood in the context of open competition for wealth, status, and power—indeed, popular belief held that men were "self-made." The ideal man was someone who possessed the aggressive, self-advancing qualities to succeed in the competition for power and reward. This competition meant that the regard for the social good built into colonial concepts of manhood declined. In its place came a new gender-based model for maintaining the social good. According to this doctrine of "separate spheres," men sought their personal good in the harsh, amoral public arena ("the world"), while women maintained the domestic arena ("the home") as a nurturing place where women revived the moral and spiritual sensibilities of their husbands and instilled them in their children. Aiding women in their role as moral exemplars and teachers were the values of the Second Great Awakening, which impressed many northern men with demanding notions of piety and restraint (notions that would become secularized later in the century as "character").

The solidification of the southern planter class and of race-based slavery led to notions of manhood that reflected imaginings of chivalry and feudal social structure. Where northern men imputed sexual purity to women and saw it as a force that could save men from "natural" lust, southern men imagined women's sexual purity not as something that would protect them but as something that they as men should protect. While early modern notions of honor faded in the North, they flourished in the South. A man's reputation and those of his family and his wife were central to manly notions of honor that were invigorated in this period among all classes of white men. But there were significant class differences. For the planter class, the ultimate proof of honor lay in the duel, which wrapped anger and violence in elaborate, formal ritual. Yeomen farmers and poor backwoodsmen proved their honor in a different fashion, ritualized but far less formal and restrained. They engaged in eye-gouging and noholds-barred wrestling as customary practices that proved manly honor.

White southern men were held together across class lines by a common sense of superiority and fear in relation to African American men. White men cast them as ignorant, uncivilized, and sexually dangerous, and these qualities provided a convenient rationale for the system of bondage. Because African Americans were scarce in the rural North, they played little role in notions of ideal manhood there. Nevertheless, many white workingmen in the burgeoning cities of the North imagined African American men as libidinous and uncivilized. These notions arose in the context of economic friction stemming from competition for work between white and African American artisans and laborers in the early nineteenth century.

Although our knowledge of African American manliness as a category of "otherness" is extensive, we know little about African Americans' own concepts of manliness in this era. To the extent that African Americans absorbed or adapted to white concepts of manliness (such as independence and "competence" as economic providers), they were dealing with a standard that they were denied resources to attain. During the early nineteenth century, freedom (and the act of standing up for it) became known as "the manhood of the race," a term that applied to the behavior of both men and women in pursuit of freedom. But in general we know less about concepts of manliness in this era than we do about many other aspects of African American culture.

See alsoCourtship; Domestic Violence; Dueling; Male Friendship; Marriage; Parenthood; Rape; Seduction; Sexual Morality .


Gorn, Elliott. "'Good-Bye Boys, I Die a True American': Homicide, Nativism, and Working-Class Culture in Antebellum New York City." Journal of American History 74 (1987): 388–410.

Greenberg, Kenneth S. Honor and Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Humanitarianism, Death, Slave Rebellions, the Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting, and Gambling in the Old South. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Lombard, Anne S. Making Manhood: Growing Up Male in Colonial New England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Rotundo, E. Anthony. American Manhood: Transitions in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

E. Anthony Rotundo