Eric V. Snow



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Dear wife and my dear children this comes with my kind love to you hoping to find you all well as its leaves me at present thanks be to God for it dear wife . . . dear wife give my kind love to my mother and my brothers and sisters and i hope they will send me word how thay all be . . . from your loving husband antill death.
The rural workers' autobiographies which mention the positive quality of their marriages, such as those by Somerville or Arch, also support Snell’s viewpoint.307 How can the data from Weber, Gillis, and Snell be reconciled, besides trying to duck the implications of Weber's data by saying it concerns Frenchmen and not Englishmen?
The Limits to Snell's Rebuttal Against Seeing Lower Class Family Life as Harsh
Snell's mistake resembles Fogel and Engerman's when they implicitly equate slave marriages being broken up by sale with slave family breakup. The main tension that Weber and Gillis observe emerges between the productive adults owning some type of property, rented or owned, and their dependents, whether they are children or aged parents. The resentment characterizing family relations stems from the productive being forced to support the nonproductive because of their family relationships. Additional bitterness results from adult children who are unable to marry until they have come into the possession of their parents' property when the latter die or retire. In reply, parents complain that their adult children are disobedient and ungrateful. (To Weber, the generation gap is nothing new!) Furthermore, the French peasantry and English farmworkers dealt with marriage differently. English laborers rarely (if ever) had arranged marriages because they normally had no property (or position based on it) worthy of notice by parents or heirs. But French peasants often did have property interests requiring protection, so parents serving family interests often carefully chose mates, or otherwise limited the number of possible choices, for their children in order to avoid such problems as divided inheritances. For this reason, their marriages would be less happy than the English laborers’, if all other things were equal, because a love match is more likely to avoid marital discord, at least when the couple kept physical attraction from blinding them from considering personal compatibility and character. Huppert puts well the potential cost of arranged marriages to the wife's happiness:
The secret torments experienced by girls pushed into marriage against their inclination rarely stand recorded in official documents, even though their plight was clearly one of the most common dilemmas of the times and subject of innumerable popular plays, stories, and songs.
Knowing disinheritance was the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, reluctant bridegrooms faced a less severe version of the same problem. So when Snell maintains working class marriages were (generally) good, this is not identical to all family relationships, because Gillis and Weber focus on the tensions of the parent-child bond. Since Snell also leans upon letters written from countries where resources seemed limitless, where a great and mostly empty wilderness ached to be filled (e.g., America, Canada, Australia), Gillis's theme of the limited good constricting and burdening everyone in a biologically-determined circle of life is inoperative. Men in these countries with so much land, work, and high wages available compared to England worry little by comparison about earning the minimal amount to support wives or children. The wives themselves could find lots of paid work or useful labor in raising food available as well, lessening or eliminating the need for their husbands to support them. Since wizened parents are poor candidates for emigration to distant foreign countries' frontier regions, the need to financially support them is rendered a non-issue, beyond possible remittances via the mail. A scarcity of resources provokes the family clashes that Gillis, Weber, and (implicitly) Huppert discuss, but this problem is an unlikely concern for a man writing home from some sparsely populated frontier region to his wife, children, or parents. Finally, as Snell himself admits, such letters may reflect the adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder.308 So although the disharmony levels of peasant marriages on the Continent arguably surpassed that of the farmworkers, Snell’s evidence does not refute Gillis and Weber's grim interpretation of family relationships between the productive and dependents, old or young.
When dealing with elderly agricultural laborers and the poor law, Snell himself notes that their family relationships could be badly strained when parish authorities forced adult children to support their elderly parents, as noted above: "The pressure on relatives to pay (and this extended beyond children, even, informally, to neighbours) placed a heavy strain on the family, and must frequently have raised ill-feeling between spouses and animosity against the elderly."309 The agricultural workers frequently felt this burden was an unfair imposition because over the generations they had come to assume that the (Old) Poor Law would make others care for their aged parents. By contrast, the French peasantry was totally unaffected by any poor law. They had long been accustomed to making private arrangements dealing with their aged parents--which obviously failed to reduce much the level of resentment it generated. One witness, rather shocked, described the peasants' attitude toward their parents: "[The family members are] harsh on the dying as they are hard on themselves. [They] are not embarrassed to say in his hearing that he is dying and will kick the bucket anytime. His wife and his children mutter bitter words about wasted time. He is a burden and he feels it."310 The French historian Bonnemere described the attitudes from others that an old man in 1850s rural France endured:

[He] carries the wretchedness of his last days with him from cottage to cottage, unwelcome, ill received, a stranger in his children's house. At last he dies . . . but it well for him to make haste, for greed is there, and greed nerves the arm of hidden parricide.311


Snell ironically records family relationships strained for similar reasons when the English parish authorities intervened:
It was reported that: 'Many sons contribute to support of aged parents only when forced by law'; that children might move away from the area 'to evade claim'; that 'Quarrels frequently arise between children as regards giving the help'; or that the 'aged prefer a pittance from the parish (regarded as their due) to compulsory maintenance by children; compulsion makes such aid very bitter'.312
The attitude reflected in the last clause was due to how the Poor Law, Old or New, made somebody else pay for the aged's upkeep. The ratepayers were forced to support the nonproductive, unlike in countries without a poor law, such as France, Ireland, or Scotland. Because the New Poor Law tightened the screws on relief’s availability, adult children were increasingly forced to support their aged parents, thus making the quality of family life of the English laborers suffer from the same problems the French peasantry had long faced, who supported their elderly directly without any third parties in-between.
How Not Being Independent and Self-Sufficient Could Improve Family Life
Conspicuously, the slave family in the American South avoided internal family conflicts about supporting their elderly. Because the slave family was not financially self-sufficient, but was subordinated to the slaveholders’ interests in production, these conflicts were eliminated. Bondsmen did not undergo the pressures of the family poverty life cycle, which were concomitant with the burdens of freedom and independence. All the slaves, children and elderly included, ate from a common pot, so to speak, since none (typically) had to support themselves directly. Since the master and mistress stood between the productive adults on one side and the children and retired old slaves on the other as the protectors and supporters of all their human chattels' interests and needs, the slaves’ resentments mostly focused on their owners and overseers, not against the unproductive in their midst. After all, by its very nature, slavery discouraged self-motivated hard work by every slave since the amount of work done usually had little effect on how much anyone owned or earned, thus placing a premium on everyone being as lazy as the lash allowed. Upholding themselves as the supporters of the slaves' children and elderly, the slaveholders, because they owned the land, labor, animals, and crops, became the intermediaries between the productive and nonproductive slaves. The slaves perceived any shortages of food, shelter, and clothing as the stingy master or overseer’s fault; correspondingly, they saw none among their own families as a financial drain. Since the slave family lacked the burdens of freedom, its members did not have to depend on each another as much, because the plantation's work process organized and did for its slaves so much of what free families had to do on their own. Overall slave family instability remained much higher than free families’ despite this reduction in inter-generational disharmony, which was a curious byproduct of the master’s making all his slaves economically dependent on him, because the peculiar institution still produced powerful centrifugal forces that forcibly broke up slave families for the reasons described above. The privations that result from the outer world's hostility and indifference can drive families to stay together; the ease that comes from other institutions performing functions for the family that it could do independently, such as child care and cooking, can encourage families to drift apart.
The Weber-Gillis thesis has its own implications for the slave family, despite its origins in analyzing general European conditions: If lower-class family life in Europe was "nasty, brutish, and short," could have it been the same among the slaves? A number of differences obviously arise here, including cultural traditions derived from Africa (e.g., an emphasis on the extended family), and how the system of slavery itself directly attacked the slave family in the name of the profits that slaveholders derived from labor mobility and flexibility when dividing its members up. The conflicts between the enslaved and masters trumped any among slave family members themselves whenever any financial or material motivations arose, since masters controlled how much any of their slaves received, outside of theft and some outside earnings for off-hours work. Dubois's extremely pessimistic portrayal of slave family life varies sharply from Gillis and Weber's descriptions of lower class European family life, despite all believe a low quality of family relations prevailed. Depicting the depths to which the slave family could plummet, Dubois here exaggerated the plight of average field hands on plantations without resident masters: "The homes of the field hands were filthy hovels where they slept. There was no family life, no meals, no marriages, no decency, only an endless round of toil and a wild debauch at Christmas time." Since the master or mistress could countermand any of the slave father’s desires, he lacked authority in the home, making him easily sink "to a position of male guest in the house, without respect or responsibility." The slave mother was also absent, but for different reasons: She was a full-time field hand or domestic servant who lacked time to care for her children well. When she was sexually used by the master, his sons, or the overseer, her husband still could not protect her. She could be suddenly and arbitrarily separated by his or her master from him. Given these dismal realities, Dubois summed up the slave family’s condition: "Such a family was not an organism at best; and, in its worst aspect, it was a fortuitous agglomeration of atoms."0
Despite some similarities, different causes produced clearly different effects between what Dubois describes and what Gillis’s, Weber’s, or Huppert’s depict for the family units they portray. In the case of the African-American slaves, the master's power to divide slave families in order to promote his self-interest and to subordinate them to profit-producing work processes produces sharply different stresses from what laborers or peasants endured. In contrast, in having to struggle to maintain some degree of financial solvency and independence above the margin of subsistence, peasants often resented the burdens imposed by nonproductive family members such as the elderly or young children. The kinds of alienation the two groups were apt to suffer from varied as well. The slaves were prone to sense a rootlessness characterized by the feeling that they belonged to no place or set of people, besides to their masters and mistresses. But the French peasants' sense of anomie likely had opposite causes: Many felt constricted in and too tied down by major, life-changing decisions, such as marriage, in their local villages. They had to deal with and support family members that they had little desire to help. Although because masters and mistresses largely determined their slaves’ occupation and place of residence, slaves suffered from this kind of alienation as well, but within their families, different factors operated. Most slaves had far more freedom to choose a mate than French peasants did, with their arranged marriages or highly limited choices within their native villages. Hence, although Gillis and Weber's thesis plausibly points to lower class Europeans having a low quality of family life, their theory cannot be easily transferred to American slaves because they faced very different societal pressures.
The Limits to Applying the Gillis-Weber Thesis to the English Case
So then, what are the implications of the Gillis-Weber thesis for the quality of the English laborers' family life? It only partially fits because the laborers had more freedom to choose who they married, often like the slaves. Their families routinely lacked the financial interests that, among French peasants, encouraged arranged marriages or narrowed dramatically the pool of potential spouses. As wage earners or dependents on parish relief during the Speenhamland era of family allowances, they had no need to wait until their parents died to marry. To the extent proletarianization spread because of domestic industry’s development or subsistence farming’s decline, this process had the advantage of freeing adult children to marry before their parents died or retired so the family farm or business could be turned over to them. Furthermore, enclosure and the poor law both tended to lower the laborers' average marriage age because they largely removed the laborers’ need to build up a nest egg of savings while working as (unmarried) farm servants before becoming (married) day laborers.314 The pressures of families having to survive independently, excepting any charity or parish relief, still promoted among them uncompassionate responses towards dependent elderly parents or young children. In a lament made to Somerville, note the torn feelings one Wiltshire man felt over the death of his son:
We had another boy, but he died two weeks aback; as fine a boy as you could wish to see he wur, and as much thought on by his mother and I; but we ben't sorry he be gone. I hopes he be happy in heaven. He ate a smart deal; and many a time, like all on us, went with a hungry belly. Ah! we may love our children never so much, but they be better gone; one hungry belly makes a difference where there ben't enough to eat.315
Although feeling sadness over his son’s death, this father also felt relieved by the removal of the burden of buying food for his son when his family scraped so close at the margins of subsistence. The father earned only eight shillings a week to support what before was a family of five. Slaves would have no such mixed feelings over a child's death, because they had no need to support directly that child in a financially separate, self-supporting family. Instead, all their children were communally cared for under the (nominal) slaveholder’s aegis as part of the plantation's (or farm's) functions. Slaves felt no financial burden from having a large family because they were all automatically fed part of the plantation's standard rations and their offspring received crude day care while the adults worked in the fields. Few slaves worried about the pressures that the family poverty life cycle describes because they did not support their offspring directly. But the factors Weber and Gillis spotlight that lowered the quality of family life for French peasants (and others) did affect the English farmworkers, but to a lesser extent, because although they did attempt to independently support themselves, their marriage relationships likely were better, being more based on love matches or personal compatibility, because their families lacked serious property interests.
Some Evidence Bearing on the Quality of Farmworkers' Family Life
It is easy to show that this or that laborer's family apparently had strong ties. Their resistance against being split up when placed in a workhouse, either by sex when all were placed in one, or when just part of a family might go in, could summon all the passions of the human spirit, much like the archetypal slave auction scene. Having been ordered to enter the workhouse with his wife, one aged laborer compared it to sundering what God had placed together "that we may live apart and meet death in our old age each alone," in order merely to deter others from applying for relief. In one terribly tearful scene, one Wiltshire laborer told his family they were just about out of food, so to get any bread one of his children (all of them being under age ten) would have to go into the workhouse. Two begged not to be sent. Their mother said any of them would have their hearts broken if they went. The oldest girl said, "Oh, don't send me, I be willing to eat less bread not to go, and Billy says he be the same; father, we will not cry for bread when we be hungry no more, so be's us ben't sent to the union." Seeing their determination to stay together at such a high cost, the father could only hug and kiss them.316 The strength of the laborers’ family relationships can also be demonstrated less dramatically. Arch's wife desired plaintively that he stay and work around their home more, instead of tramping about to earn much better wages far away. In this or that aged couple, as Hudson noted, when the wife or husband dies, the other soon follows her or him to the graveyard. Laborers' wives were said to dislike cottages with a second story because they could not watch their children or an old relative as well, which implies not all elderly relatives were ill-cared for.317 The laborers’ family life hardly can be characterized as being only grim and devoid of affection.
Nevertheless, the laborers' family life also had a dark side. The sexually-segregated male culture of the pub and beerhouse, including the drinking bouts, wasted wages, and idleness that so irked middle class critics, was hardly conducive to making happy households. True, it is easy to exaggerate how common these problems were. The role of the aristocracy, gentry, and farmers in creating the laborers’ economically hopeless position in their post-enclosure, high under- and unemployment rural world could also be mistakenly overlooked. But still the ultimately self-chosen ill-effects of the tavern on marital and filial relations are undeniable. Then in some cases, husbands abandoned their wives and children to be supported by the parish. Snell found 289 cases of family desertion out of 4,961 settlement examinations, which occurred when the local parish authorities considered ordering a removal or when they investigated a relief applicant's parish of settlement. Five percent of the examinations made under the Old Poor Law (in the 1700-1834 period) revealed cases of desertion. They almost always featured the husband as the one guilty of abandoning his family, often while serving as a soldier or member of the militia. The number of abandonments rose to 10.5 percent of those examined under the New Poor Law (1835-1880). This increase is likely the product of a change in the applicant pool: Instead of showing more family break-ups occurred overall, the new law deterred all but the most desperate from applying for relief. Middle-aged women with two or three children to support and no husband to assist them were more apt to be at their last extremity, and were less likely to let the post-1834 regime deter them from applying for relief, than intact families that included a husband temporarily out of work. While illegitimacy was something of a problem (Tess Durbeyfield had her real-life counterparts), it was neither common nor as problematic since (unlike contemporary inner-city America) normally the father and mother did marry after their child’s birth. Indeed, the working and lower classes deemed the ability of a woman to become pregnant before marriage to be a positive sign, as proof of her fertility. (Of course, the men seldom blamed themselves when such proof was lacking!) One woman expressed her mate's attitude thus: "My husband acted on the old saying about here, 'No child, no wife', and I had one afore I was married." Cohabitation before marriage was not rare. Although the practice produced some instability in laborers' families, because the men might abandon the women they impregnated, others in their village pressured such men to do the honorable thing in a dishonorable situation. The English agricultural workers’ behavior here was typical for western Europe.318 The New Poor Law's bastardy enactment attempted to discourage this custom, which seemed to have some effect at least in Petworth Union: The number of illegitimate births fell from nineteen to ten from 1834 to 1836.319 The masculine beerhouse culture, the modest number of desertions, and the hazards of bearing children before marriage clearly betray that the English laborer's family did have problems. But only possibly excepting the first listed did these problems differ much from what elsewhere prevailed in much of Europe. The stability of laborers’ families definitely far exceeded that of American slaves. Nevertheless, this evidence helps support the Gillis-Weber thesis concerning how low the levels of affection could plunge for workers’ family life, even though the English laborers' case here appears to be better overall than the French peasantry's.
Why the Slave Family Was Fundamentally Worse Off than the Laborer Family
Despite the English farmworker's family had its share of instability and its own version of resentments between the productive and nonproductive, its relationships were still in much better repair than the slave family's. The slaveholders created the difference, by prioritizing their needs for a flexible labor supply while pursuing profit over the quality of their slaves' family relationships. Englishmen and Englishwomen simply never had to endure family breakup as a direct sanction by their employers or as an immediate result of the death or bankruptcy of some farmer for which they worked. They did face, of course, the same challenges to staying committed to their family relationships that free people everywhere had. True, the parish authorities (i.e., the local government) interfered some through apprenticing children in cases of "parental irresponsibility."320 The local “powers-that-be” also could split up the families of the unemployed who applied for “indoor” relief under the New Poor Law before they entered the workhouse. But these acts of intervention hardly approached what slaveholders could do privately without the approval of others. Masters and mistresses routinely, if not always, treated slave family relationships cavalierly. The lack of legal recognition of slave marriages then encouraged the bondsmen to treat their family ties lightly as well. Laborers never had to suffer the pain of involuntary permanent separation of a son or daughter, brother or sister, mother or father, aunt or uncle, etc., from them because of an employing farmer or landlord’s arbitrary whims. Certain whole problems that could rent apart a enslaved black family in the American South the laborers never had to experience, such as sexual assaults by their employers and landlords for which they had no legal recourse against, which was miscegenation’s core problem. Arranged marriages (i.e., those masters forced on their subordinates), although uncommon among the slaves, were non-existent among laborers. The laborers never had to deal with the major issues that generally weakened slave family life, such as "living abroad" being a routine way of life causing literal distance within many slave families, the father's role as provider being made largely superfluous because the slaveholders provided automatic rations for their slaves, the mother's role being undermined by fundamentally involuntary work in the fields requiring the use of crude master-provided day care, and the youngest children being raised largely in the daytime by somewhat older children and not their parents under the guidance of one or more old women on the plantations.321 Now the family economy among the laborers was gravely weakened towards the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth as enclosure generally wiped out their direct access to the means of production. But among the slaves this institution hardly existed outside the task system areas, since husbands and wives rarely worked with each other to support directly their family independently. So despite the problems in English laborers’ family life, which increased during the rise of enclosure and the decline of service (which had promoted the accumulation of savings), which both encouraged the irresponsible, beerhouse culture among the men in areas without allotments, the slaves’ fared far worse because the slaveholders could, in order to serve their own material interests, directly intervene and break up the slave family into scattered individuals.
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