John Gilbert McCurdy: Bachelors at the time of the American Revolution

Roundup: Talking About History

[John Gilbert McCurdy, an assistant professor of history at Eastern Michigan University, is the author of “Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States.”]

BY July 4, 1776, Elbridge Gerry had tired of independence. A delegate at the Second Continental Congress, Gerry had worked for months to secure his country’s freedom. But in the oppressive heat of a Philadelphia summer, Gerry’s mind turned to the woman he had left behind in Massachusetts. While America’s freedom was important to Gerry, he was simultaneously determined to extinguish a more personal type of independence: his bachelorhood.

Mere days from his 32nd birthday, Gerry was already an old bachelor by 18th-century standards. Abigail Adams was particularly cold toward him. Although she tried to forgive Gerry “because he is a stranger to domestic felicity,” she confessed to her husband, John, that she could not reconcile herself to “the stoicism which every bachelor discovers.” Sadly for Gerry, his progress toward matrimony proved unsuccessful. Although he courted Catherine Hunt throughout the summer, by September he returned to Philadelphia still a bachelor.

Elbridge Gerry was not the only man to struggle with the taint of bachelorhood in Revolutionary America. As the delegates created a new nation, they assailed sexual immorality, luxury and sloth — all of which they associated with the single life. Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania advised a young man to wed for his own health “for your disorder is seldom met with in married life,” while Benjamin Franklin made a small fortune with such aphorisms as “a man without a wife is but half a man.”

Nor was it just inside Independence Hall that bachelors were scorned. For 80 years, Pennsylvania had collected a levy on single men who earned wages but did not own property....

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