Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




Karin Wulf

Committee Member

Charles McGovern

Committee Member

Susan Kern

Committee Member

Warren M. Billings

Committee Member

Corinne T. Field


“Negotiating American Youth” examines the venues in which young people and authority figures negotiated understandings of how age and communal or familial expectations affected one’s marriageability, independence and dependence, culpability, capability, and reliability in the Early Republican United States. Historians have characterized the period following the American Revolution as a progressive march toward legally uniform and modern interpretations of childhood, age, and family relationships that we might recognize today as more standardized. More specifically, historians of the Early Republic have often seized on newly codified definitions of age and independence as a means to explain changes in family relationships and perceptions or experiences of youth. “Negotiating American Youth” challenges this narrative by arguing that legal definitions of age as they related to the experiences of young people and family relationships remained incredibly variable and circumstantial well into the post-bellum period. A wide-range of sources underpin the study as age and its significance (or insignificance) seems to appear everywhere once one looks for it. From marriage records and divorce petitions to court cases pertaining to murder, rape, fraud, and dependence, age was regularly used as a form of evidence in order to justify or undermine one’s legal argument. Although the historical record is peppered with such evidence, historians have tended to overlook the consistent acknowledgement of age in Early Republican sources. More specifically, historians have failed to see that a strict interpretation of age was recognized as important by some Early Republicans while at the same time age was a fluid category of identity for others. When legal documents are paired with personal letters and diaries, we gain a more holistic view of how age was understood. Furthermore, the significance of age was determined by the venue the individual was operating within which, as this dissertation will explore, ranged from schools, youth cultures, families, and households to courts and churches. Those doing the negotiating included young people and their parents but also lawyers, judges, legislators, clergymen, and even insurance brokers, illustrating how widespread a consciousness of age was becoming after the Revolution. Age was a flexible and contextual form of identity-- a legal and social construct-- which was regularly discussed, negotiated, debated, performed, and utilized strategically throughout the Early Republican United States. to illustrate this point, the geographic and chronological parameters of this study are deliberately far reaching; regardless of regional or temporal context (North or South, urban or rural, 1775 or 1860), age was both important and unimportant to the average citizen depending on the needs of the moment.



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