Republican Motherhood Origins

Virginia R. Bensen

Republican Motherhood was an ideal that developed during America’s Early Republic period during the 1790s. It charged women with the task of shaping the values of their sons, who were likely to have a direct impact on the nation’s success.

To help you understand the ideal of Republican Motherhood, here is a brief background of the New Republic period in America:

After the American Revolution, the leaders were concerned with how the new republic would survive. They determined that this survival depended on the next generation to be patriotic.  It was also determined the new country needed to raise and educate patriotic sons.

Up until this time in the republic (1790s) men were charged with their children’s education. By children, we are referring to their male children.  The attitude of that time was that “Girls knew quite enough if they could make a shirt and a pudding.”

In the essay, “Plans for the Establishment of Public Schools”, Benjamin Rush suggests that because mothers are the first teachers of children, they could train young patriots if they focused on “the great subjects of liberty and government.” He also acknowledged that women influenced grown men.  He then stated “because women have such influence, they should be instructed in “the principles of liberty and government, and the obligations of patriotism.” 

In 1787, Rush listed four aspects of women’s lives to consider in designing an appropriate formal education for women:

  1. American women have a tendency to marry early, therefore their schooling should be confined to “the more useful branches of literature.”
  2. American men depended on “the assistance of the female members of the community; therefore, these females needed to be trained to be the “stewards and guardians of their husband’s property.
  3. Since men’s duties necessitated their absence from home so much, instruction of children primarily was the mother’s responsibility.
  4. Every citizen has an equal share in enjoying and preserving the liberty of the new nation, and some might share in governing it. The future of the republic depended on each individual’s virtue. Therefore, “Ladies” needed a formal education that prepared them “to concur in instructing their sons in the principles of liberty and government.”

So what is so important about republican motherhood?  According to historian Carol Berkin, this was the moment that shifted the responsibility of educating children from the father to the mother.  This was also the moment when women were given a civic (not a political role) in the new American republic. Her new civic duty was to hold together the next generation’s defense of this republic.

Sources for this article:

Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers, Vintage Books:New York, 2005, 152.

Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America, University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Margaret. A. Nash, “Rethinking Republican Motherhood: Benjamin Rush and the Young Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia,” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 17, no. 2 (Summer 1997), 171-191.

Kim Lorton, “Republican Motherhood: Coverture and Virtue in Early National America,” Historia, 57-65. (Online: https://eiu.edu)

Sara M. Evans, Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America, New York: Free Press Paperbacks.

Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic, University of Pennsylvania Press, 20007.

Listen to our podcast Season 1, Episode 2 titled: “Republican Motherhood.”

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