CRITICS OF "MODERN" permissiveness toward children may be surprised and chagrined to learn that this attitude has its roots in an American tradition over 200 years old. An increasingly affectionate and indulgent attitude toward children in the latter half of the 18th century is one of the phenomena noted by Daniel Blake Smith in his book, "Inside the Great House . The subtitle, "Planter Family Life in Eighteenth-century Chesapeake Society," may mislead a casual reader; the theme is kinship and familiar relationships, not amusements, costumes and cookery.
As historians are aware, the best sources of social attitudes and customs are contemporary "personal documents" -- letters, diaries, deeds, wills and so on. Smith has made use of approximately two dozen sets of family papers, now in the collections of various libraries and historical societies. He also refers extensively to the published diaries and letters of two well-known Virginia planter families, the Byrds of Westover and the Carters of Sabine Hall.
Valuable as these sources are, they have certain inherent drawbacks, the chief of which is their limited nature. The documents are comparatively fe in number, which makes generalization risky; they come almost entirely from the upper socio-economic class, which makes generalizations about other groups virtually impossible. Smith is, of course, well aware of these problems. He carefully qualifies his conclusions and supports them, when possible, with documentation from a wide range of other sources. He describes the relations or parents and children, of husbands and wives, and of the wider range of kin which, as life expectancy lengthened, came to include grandparents as well as cousins, uncles and aunts. There are also chapters on attitudes toward sickness and death, on romantic courtship, and on the position of women. His results agree with those of other historians who have found an increasing "modernization" of American personal values after the middle of the 18th century, but he suggests that the nature of Southern society was particularly conducive to the increasing affection and independence granted children at this period.
This change in attitudes toward children is probably the most interesting of the familial relationships Smith discusses. Young people were more and more encouraged to become economically independent; discipline was based on the demands of duty and affection rather than the switch; and marriages were more often based on "the impulses of the heart" than parental directive. Some of the examples quoted have a surprising modern sound. The most striking case is that of Thomas Hollyday, the youngest son of a well-to-do Maryland planter. Tom's distraught father reported "some instances of very gross language to his mother & some of his sisters . . . [which] have wounded his Mother's spirits exceedingly." The boy beat the servants "upon no other pretect than there was something in their looks or manner . . . that was insolent." It seems clear that the young man was seriously emotionally disturbed but instead of beating or confining Tom, his father merely tried to "restrain his violence to any of the family" and sought help from friends and physicians.
The discussion of the role of women contains no new or startling material. As in other regions and at other times, women were expected to be submissive, charming and stupid. I was sorry to see Smith refer to the publications of Erik Erikson, whose belief that the "inner space" orientation of women is based on the construction of their genitalia seems to me as idiotic as the 18th-century notion that God made women mentally inferior to men. However, Smith scrupulously quotes all possible points of view, including those with which he disagrees. (I hope this is one of them.)
This chapter may be the weakest part of the book. The subleties and the exceptions to the rules are not dealt with. This weakness certainly arises, in part at least, from the limited nature of the material itself, as does another weakness, the absence of a detailed analysis of slavery and its effect on familiar relationships. Smith does mention this and makes several valuable points, such as the fact that "the command experience" would come early and naturally to sons of slave-owning families. I would like to have seen this theme further developed; but one can hardly blame the author for a gap in his sources. He has written a good, conscientious book, which is happly free of scholarly jargon. It should be of interest to the general reader as well as to scholars.