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A History of Stepfamilies in Early America
University of North Carolina Press, 2014
172 pp., $32.50
Lauren F. Winner
Family History, Revisited
It is a colonial commonplace that the metropole is described as "the mother country." The metaphor tells a particular story about a country and her colonies: the imperial country will care for and nourish the colonies, and see to the needs of the (infantilized) people who live there. In the 17th and 18th centuries, English men and women living in the American colonies embraced the metaphor—Anne Bradstreet, for example, wrote of England as the mother and New England the daughter. And during the American Revolution, the metaphor proved useful for Patriots who sought an emotionally trenchant expression for all the ways the Mother Country was failing her children. As early as 1765, John Adams asked if "Britain is the mother and we are the children … have not children a right to complain when their parents are attempting to break their limbs?" In New York, James Duane glossed the Revolution as a "family quarrel." Lisa Wilson's fascinating new study, A History of Stepfamilies in Early America, adds this delicious detail to the story of family ideology in American political discourse: during the Revolutionary Era, Americans began to characterize England as a stepmother. As the taxation debates roiled, William Williams, Connecticut's agent in London, claimed that America now had a "Step mother country." And Adams himself, after signing the Declaration of Independence, bid farewell not to a cruel and abusive mother, but to a stepmother: "Farewell! Farewell, infatuated, besotted stepdame," he wrote, using the term that, according to Wilson, was the "most negative of terms for a stepmother."
These stepfamilial epithets had such purchase in part because in early America, step-families were everywhere. As Wilson shows at the outset of her monograph, many of the Founding Fathers presided over, or were raised in, stepfamilies. James Madison was the stepfather of the son born to Dolley Madison during ...