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Research Seminars



Julia Bowes
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey "Every family is a little state or empire": Paternal Sovereignty and the Transformation of Governance in the Nineteenth Century United States


28 March 2017

12:30 p.m.
4.36 Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus



Since colonial times, the patriarch had been a pillar of state power in the United States. The state governed through the head of the household who was vested with the authority and discretion to govern his dependents, a form of government that William Blackstone famously dubbed the “empire of the father.” The rise of the modern liberal state, however, directly challenged the powers of the patriarch by establishing a direct relationship between the state and household dependents.


This talk offers the concept of paternal sovereignty as a new framework to understand domestic relations in the Anglo-American Victorian world and as a means to explain the role of the male-headed family as a mode of governance in antebellum America. It explores how the concept of paternal sovereignty weathered the dramatic transformations in household and state governance throughout the nineteenth century. Specifically, it looks at how the power and reach of the American state was expanded by twinning the needs of the state with the rights of the child through the introduction of compulsory schooling laws after the Civil War. The talk argues that a wide range of Americans opposed the spread of compulsory schooling by claiming that the laws invaded the sovereign powers of the head of the family. Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century, the concept of paternal sovereignty that had once been foundational to state power had become a rallying point for a diverse array of Americans to oppose the expansion of the modern liberal state.


All are welcome. No registration is required.