Holly Brewer. By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. xi + 390 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2950-9.
Reviewed by Lorri Glover (Department of History, University of Tennessee)
Published on H-Atlantic (December, 2005)
Theorizing Childhood in the Age of Reason
Combining a fresh analysis of the writings of well-known political theorists from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with rigorous interrogation of court records, legal commentaries, theological texts, and even an occasional work of fiction or art, Holly Brewer advances a provocative argument about the intersections between perceptions of childhood and the evolution of political values in England and America. According to Brewer, by the late eighteenth century, as contractual relations based on mutual consent replaced inherited status as the foundation for civic authority, childhood became a more distinct and monolithic construct. Children were no longer born into a class status, but into a stage of life--one that denied them political and legal power until they achieved adulthood and the ability to reason and consent. As Brewer argues, "childhood itself was redefined as a consequence of the shift in political legitimacy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries" (p. 8).
The "before" picture in this story, based on Brewer's impressive research, reveals four-year-olds marking indentures, nine-year-olds marrying, and teenagers serving on juries and in Parliament. For example, when Christopher Monck won election to the House of Commons in the mid-seventeenth century, he was only thirteen. Having commenced his legal studies at the age of eight, Monck married and was knighted at sixteen. Like the other young leaders Brewer discovered, Monck's lineage ensured his early entry into power; his status far outweighed his age in legitimizing his authority. But concerns about youthful governmental officials intensified in England after the Restoration, and laws in the late seventeenth century first stripped teenagers of their voting and speaking rights in Parliament and then voided their election. Both the imperial center and the provinces assigned more and more importance to age and ability (rather than lineage) in choosing leaders throughout the eighteenth century. The U.S. Constitution precluded hereditary office-holding and set the age requirement for election not at eighteen or twenty-one but at twenty-five for the House, thirty for the Senate, and thirty-five for the Presidency. This transformation affirms Brewer's fundamental argument: as Britons and Americans decided that power should derive from reasoned consent, not inherited status, they simultaneously defined children as incapable of consent and therefore unable to exercise authority.
Brewer also explores this shift toward authority based on consent rather than birth in the management of children's indentures and apprenticeships, the legal definitions of parental custody and guardianship (her attention to the nuances of language in this section is particularly inspired), the punishment of juvenile criminals, and even in theological debates about infant baptism. Her second chapter, which describes the intersections of religious, political, and family ethics in the wake of the Reformation and which is based on a mastery of texts from both sides of the Atlantic, is especially graceful and compelling. This, then, is a wide-ranging and ambitious book, one which raises important questions about political and legal theories of childhood and the proper foundation for authority in the Anglo-American world.
Perhaps Brewer's greatest contribution is the clarity and sophistication with which she reveals the dialogic interplay between the imperial center and its varied British-American colonies. Ideas and practices, from theories of citizenship to baptism rituals, did not simply travel from London to the peripheries. Instead, as Brewer convincingly demonstrates, the varied colonies (she focuses on Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania) and England participated in a decades-long exchange of ideas and values, with events in these assorted regions reverberating throughout the Anglo-Atlantic community. Brewer emphasizes the transforming power of several episodes, including the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the English Civil War, the Restoration, and the American Revolution. As the intellectual and legal implications of these movements played out in varying ways in the imperial center and the colonies (and then the young United States, after independence), leaders in these areas remained mutually influenced by one another and in dialogue about the shifting principles of political and familial authority.
Brewer is likewise adept at providing clear explanations of the complexities and tensions dividing opinions about civic life and childhood. Her chapter on marital consent laws, for example, investigates divisions both in England and between the colonies over the age at which couples could legally marry, how much to value parental control, and how to balance these two variants of consent. What could have easily turned into a blur of myriad changes over time and across locales, instead reads as a lucid commentary on the evolving understanding of consent. Brewer also offers an imaginative engagement of well-known writings by a host of political theorists, including John Locke, Thomas Paine, and Robert Filmer, and she skillfully analyzes the legal works of William Blackstone, Edward Coke, and Matthew Hale.
As with any study, there are matters to quibble over. There are too many block quotes in the book, for example. A late-appearing exploration of slavery in British America is not convincing. And gender garners scant attention until the last ten pages of the book. It seems unlikely that gender mattered as little before the late eighteenth century as Brewer intimates. If that is so, the argument merits a more vigorous defense than she offers.
More importantly, the connection between changing theories about civic authority and childhood often seems more theoretical and corollary than experiential and causal. As Brewer concedes in her introduction, "my study does not show prevalence, which is nearly impossible to discern" (p. 9). Certainly one cannot fault the author for the evidentiary base, which complicates if not thwarts any thorough-going investigation of how these ideas about childhood and consent played out in the lives of Britons and Americans. But the limitations of the sources do keep the author from consistently and persuasively linking political theories and legal treatises with childhood experiences. The language she uses to explain the connections is revealing. The changing status of children "provides an index to" shifts in political power (p. 342). Ideas about children's criminal liability "shared their origin with republican political ideology" (p. 226). The diminishing ability of children to enter into contracts was not caused by but emerged from the same "intellectual roots" as the American Revolution (p. 286). This book, then, unveils a great many intriguing parallels in intellectuals' theories about childhood and political authority, but we do not know how this actually affected many peoples' lives. Even if she has not definitively explained the connections between the birth of childhood and the age of reasoned consent, Holly Brewer has given historians of politics and of the family much to consider, and her bold ideas should inspire others to interrogate the connections between family values and civic life in the Atlantic world.
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Lorri Glover. Review of Brewer, Holly, By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority.
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