Gender, nonetheless, formed a boundary limiting those entitled to the full blessings of American freedom. Lucy Knox, the wife of General Henry Knox, wrote her husband during the war that when he returned home he should not consider himself “commander in chief of your own house, but be convinced that there is such a thing as equal command.” But the winning of independence did not alter the family law inherited from Britain. The principle of “coverture” (described in Chapter 1) remained intact in the new nation. The husband still held legal authority over the person, property, and choices of his wife. The words “to have and to hold” appeared in deeds conveying land from one owner to another, and in common marriage vows. Despite the expansion of democracy, politics remained overwhelmingly a male realm.
The 1781 cipher book (a notebook for mathematics exercises) of Martha Ryan, a North Carolina girl contains images of ships and a port town and the patriotic slogan “Liberty or Death,” illustrating how women shared in the political culture of the revolutionary era.
Keep Within Compass, a late-eighteenth-century engraving, illustrates the happiness of a “virtuous woman” if she remains within the world of the home and family, and some of the “troubles” awaiting her if she ventures outside. The woman appears in a space marked off by a compass, an instrument for drawing a circle.
For men, political freedom meant the right to self-government, the power to consent to the individuals and political arrangements that ruled over them. For women, however, the marriage contract superseded the social contract. A woman’s relationship to the larger society was mediated through her relationship with her husband. In both law and social reality, women lacked the essential qualification of political participation—the opportunity for autonomy based on ownership of property or control of one’s own person. Since the common law included women within the legal status of their husbands, women could not be said to have property in themselves in the same sense as men.
Men took pride in qualities like independence and masculinity that distinguished them from women, and still considered control over their families an element of freedom. Among the deprivations of slavery cited by a group of black male petitioners in 1774 was that it prevented their wives from “submitting themselves to husbands in all things,” as the natural order of the universe required. Many women who entered public debate felt the need to apologize for their forthrightness. A group of Quaker women who petitioned Congress during the War of Independence protesting the mistreatment of men who would not take an oath of loyalty hoped the lawmakers would “take no offense at the freedom of women.”
Most men considered women to be naturally submissive and irrational, and therefore unfit for citizenship. While public debate in the revolutionary era viewed men’s rights as natural entitlements, discussions of women’s roles emphasized duty and obligations, not individual liberty. Their rights were nonpolitical, deriving from their roles as wives and mothers.
Overall, the republican citizen was, by definition, male. In a notable case, a Massachusetts court returned to James Martin confiscated property previously owned by his mother, who had fled the state during the Revolution with her Loyalist husband. Like other states, Massachusetts seized the land of those who had supported the British. But, the court ruled, it was unreasonable to expect a wife to exercise independent political judgment. To rebel against the king was one thing, but one could hardly ask Mrs. Martin to rebel against her husband. Therefore, the court reasoned, she should not have been punished for taking the British side.