Since I move back and forth between manuscripts, I’m now diving back into the eighteenth century and am in search of details about the eighteenth-century man…
In Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America, Thomas A. Foster brings the “private sexual behavior” of the colonial man into full light, making strong argument that a man of this time shouldered many burdens based solely upon his sex.
Through court records, personal writings, and newspapers of the time, Foster paints a vivid picture of the ideal eighteenth-century man as being one who mastered his passions, proved savvy about where he stood in his community and family, and made use of social networks to defend his reputation when necessary.
Moderation was the key to his success in life. Any hint of tumult could topple what he had worked so hard to maintain (or in the instance of a son about to inherit, could result in having no firm ground on which to build a future). “Town talk” could prove disastrous.
Foster writes about Benjamin Gilbert, a young man serving in the Continental Army, accused of impregnating a young woman. Through letters and through friends, the young man appeals to his father and the girl’s father, among others. His reputation is at stake, as is his commercial future.
Marriage, Foster states, was “seen as a key for a stable society.” The man who could not keep his home under control and could not keep his wife happy and out of the arms of another man was not only failing in his own marriage, but was also failing society as a whole. Foster explains that women at this time were still viewed as “seductive Eves,” as Laurel Ulrich wrote in Good Wives. Too, novels of the time were bringing to light an eroticized love. Husbands must not only protect their wives from the fops and bachelors, but must also compete with the heroes in novels and the ideal of the perfect man. If a man could master his own sexuality, then he could keep his wife happy and that in turn would make for a calm social order.
A man’s home reputation was woven into the fabric of his business life as well. It mattered what his peers thought about him, and as Foster points out, men engaged in talk and that talk would ultimately color their dealings with each other. The world of commerce was linked to the private happenings in a man’s life.
As I create my eighteenth-century characters, I need to keep in mind the sexual dynamics the colonial man dealt with on a daily basis. Men of this time were expected to maintain moderation, produce many offspring, and keep order in their homes to the benefit of the public welfare—a tall order!