Age of Uncertainty in the 1800s

In the 1800s birthdays were not seen as markers into adulthood, leaving many young people confused as to where they belonged in society.

| June 2016

In Age in America (New York University Press, 2015), by Jon Grinspan, a collection of scholars of childhood, adulthood and old age explore how and why particular ages have come to define the rights and obligations of American citizens. We recognize these numbers as key transitions in our lives precise moments when our rights and opportunities change: when we become eligible to cast a vote, buy a drink, or enroll in Medicare. In this excerpt we explore the confusing transition into adulthood in the 1800s.

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Age of Uncertainty in the 1800s

Nineteenth-century American youths lived with a frustrating lack of age boundaries. From the 1830s through the 1880s, men and women in their late teens and early twenties stumbled beyond the old structures of kin and region, into a confusing new world of economic and social uncertainty. Though pushed toward adulthood, few clear age boundaries signified real maturity. Millions of young men puzzled over where “childhood ends and youth begins and where youth ends and manhood begins.” The path was even more muddled for women. Each birthday heightened young Americans’ concerns that they would never achieve adulthood.

One moment bucked this trend. When white men turned twenty-one and were finally able to vote, they celebrated a clear step into adulthood. This political rite of passage helped make chronological aging seem progressive and triumphant to otherwise drifting youths. Many young men looked forward to casting their first votes, and young women, denied the right themselves, nonetheless elevated its importance for the men in their lives. While Americans tended to greet their fifteenth or twentieth birthdays with chagrin, they honored an eligible man’s twenty-first birthday as an unambiguous passage into adulthood.

The political culture welcomed them. During the age of popular politics — running from the 1840s through the 1880s — public democracy stood at the center of American life. Voter turnout peaked during this era, averaging 77 percent of eligible voters at presidential elections. Some heated races drew well over 90 percent of potential voters to the polls, and even the slowest presidential election, in 1852, had a higher turnout than any presidential race since 1900. Nonvoters refused to stand on the sidelines: American women, children, and disenfranchised minorities played an active role at rallies, debates, and jollifications. Public political events served as the uniting centerpiece of American society; democracy enthralled many as the chief national pastime.

This excited political environment offered young voters a crucial sense of importance. While scholars have studied the party dynamics, ideological conflicts, and campaign tactics of this political culture, few have examined the personal significance of young Americans’ individual use of public politics. This study focuses on the private implications of Americans’ linkage of democracy and maturity.