As Jennifer Weiner recently pointed out, allowing men to be eternal boys excuses bad behavior by absolving them of responsibility for their actions. But “boyhood” as a social category has never been fully distinct from manhood. Calling a man a “boy” can mean many things, some of them contradictory. It can be a declaration of love, a call for sympathy, a warning of imminent violence or a calculated strategy to deflect attention from a crime.
In early America, whether rich, poor or somewhere in between, boys were expected to work as soon as they were able. The early achievements that Lin-Manuel Miranda ascribes to the Founding Fathers in “Hamilton” — Aaron Burr’s matriculation to Princeton as a 13-year-old, or Alexander Hamilton’s clerkship at 14 — were not unusual for young men of their class and race.
For the lower classes, indenture, apprenticeship and slavery defined boyhood. Free boys were put to work as small men in mines, on farms and in the factories that replaced household production after 1800, while enslaved boys too young for field or house labor would be assigned menial tasks or taught a trade so they could be rented out by their masters.
Boyhood as we understand it today — an extended period of play, leisure, experimentation and education — was more broadly enjoyed by privileged children before the Civil War. But it was brief, and most boys entered the workforce at an age when today’s students begin high school. As late as the 1880s, with the high school movement in full swing, if a boy showed initiative and intelligence, he was more likely to be sent into a clerkship than sent to college.
Free, white boys were a valuable resource for the nation, and parents were urged to scrutinize their sons for the qualities male citizenship required. Parson Weems’s invented exchange between 6-year-old George Washington and his father, first published in 1806 and popularized throughout the 19th century in McGuffey’s Readers, illustrated that even the youngest American boy should have a manly character. Parents were encouraged to reward such children with affection and approval. When the future Founding Father admits to having chopped down a favorite cherry tree, declaring himself incapable of lying, the elder Washington embraces him as his “dearest boy,” overjoyed because George has just proven himself to be a man.
A 19th-century boy’s errors could never be excused because of youth: Moral lapses arose from lack of character and parental instruction. Catherine Beecher, and later Horatio Alger, emphasized that capable boys became good men not only through their own choices, but through decisions that were often subtly guided by an adult. In 1836, Beecher noted in her “Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home” that a boy of 10 ought to be trained to care for all of his domestic needs without the help of servants, not because he would do them as an adult but because it would make him a kind and understanding husband.
After the Civil War, American reformers came to believe more firmly that the health of the nation depended on its children. Boys became a particular object of scrutiny, as newly freed African Americans and immigrants swelled the ranks of aspiring male citizens. A new breed of experts — doctors, sociologists, scientists and philosophers — emerged to address anxieties that white boys might be overwhelmed by this competition. Modern pleasures of all kinds — masturbation, indolence, novel reading and vice — threatened to erode the character and courage that a strong nation required.
The fear that “native” American boys might become “soft” fueled initiatives as different as the call for war in 1898, President Teddy Roosevelt’s defense of college football in 1906 and the founding of the Boy Scouts in 1908. At the same time, Progressive reformers sought to expand the privileges of boyhood beyond the favored classes by fighting for mandatory schooling and prohibitions on child labor that might, in time, create the cohesive nation they sought.
Boyhood, however, was not a place to linger. Thus, around this time, “boy” also emerged as a term of disdain and class inferiority. African American men were generically addressed as “boy” by many whites throughout the 20th century: The word sometimes served as a warning of imminent racial violence. The lowest-paid male workers in a hotel were designated as “bell boys” and at a newspaper as “copy boys”; Asian men in 20th-century California frequently held the job of “house boy.” Matt Crowley’s 1968 play, “The Boys in the Band,” expressed a pre-Stonewall consensus among heterosexuals that gays were unmanly and psychologically immature.
As these examples show, a 20th-century American male might find himself occupying boyhood and manhood simultaneously. This became even more pronounced as military service became a rite of passage in the 20th century. If military recruiters promised to turn boys into men, in fact soldiers often found their lives as boys prolonged. Fed, housed and controlled by others, military service was often filled with humiliation, fear, bullying and pointless tasks.
Yet being a “soldier boy” allows men to retain a fictional innocence, despite war’s violence. From the American “doughboys” of World War I, to the “boys of Pointe du Hoc” memorialized by Ronald Reagan, to the resentment that “our boys” returning from Vietnam were scorned, to Barack Obama’s assertions that American soldiers fought “for their best friends” in the war on terror — Americans need to believe that their sons and husbands have not been transformed by war. As historian Mary Louise Roberts has observed, when Americans romanticize their “boys” in uniform, they shield themselves from “what soldiers do.”
Speaking about a grown son as a “boy” and a “kid,” as Trump did, might be just such an act of public deflection and a declaration of his son’s innocence. It might be a statement that he — not his “good” boy — is in charge, or that Donald Trump Jr. is still learning his way around politics.
But history gives us still other possibilities, like a postfeminist American culture that has opened new spaces for men to open their hearts about their sons. When Joe Biden admitted that he did not run for president because his adult son Beau was dying of cancer, he declared that it was the right decision “for my boy, for me.” Similarly, Fred Warmbier, the father of a college senior held captive in North Korea, repeatedly said before Otto was returned in a coma: “I want my kid home.”
Similarly, whatever else Donald Trump Jr. reveals about himself to the Senate committee next week, it is no contradiction to say that he is a man, responsible for actions — and his father’s beloved boy. Jennifer Weiner is right that the United States has a recent tradition of brushing off male social violence with the assumption that “boys will be boys.” But boyhood has always been a complex, fraught and contradictory cultural category that promises — but does not guarantee — innocence.
I recommend that Donald Trump Jr. not linger there.