Sibling Revelry: Family Relations in American History

Professor of History Dallett Hemphill reminds us that the importance of siblings is often overlooked in the history of the American family in her book, Siblings – Brothers and Sisters in American History. Published this past summer by Oxford University Press, the book shows how siblings have helped each other and leaned on one another, in the face of the dramatic political, economic and cultural changes of the 18th and 19th centuries. This is the first book devoted to the broad history of sibling relations.

Based on a wealth of information, including family letters and diaries, portraits and other period images, children’s stories and advice books, Siblings traces the evolving role the sibling relationship has played in American families. In Colonial America, sibling relations provided an egalitarian space within the larger patriarchal family and society. After the Revolutionary War, “fraternity” was celebrated more openly, along with the ideals of liberty and equality.  By the pre-Civil War decades, sibling relations helped to provide order and authority in a democratizing nation.

Hemphill herself is one of eight siblings, all except one living in proximity to each other. As such, she appreciates what we can glean from the attention she has placed on siblings, compared to the lack of attention in most American family histories. “Given that we are generally a patriarchal society, the thinking regarding families has been linear, not lateral,” she explains.

Siblings, by Dallett HemphillSiblings shared a generational equality, and served as a kind of family safety valve, Hemphill writes. One example in the book is the warm and mutually supportive relationship between Benjamin Franklin and his younger sister, Jane Mecom. During a time when males were thought to be more powerful, siblings often had a more equal relationship. Although Jane shared a lesser role in society, as did women of the time, she enjoyed a more equal relationship with Ben, and offered advice and opinions on his political career. They exemplified kin-keeping – the keeping in touch and necessary care giving between siblings. He was rich and famous and she fell on ill health and poverty, yet the “kin-keeping was neither a backward-looking activity nor one that served family hierarchy,” Hemphill writes. It was a rich relationship as the two kept up a lively correspondence of family news, and as Ben mentored nephews, grandnephews and other family members in apprenticeships and jobs in England, France, New York and Philadelphia. Jane served as gatekeeper as outsiders sought to take advantage of Ben’s celebrity, and she preserved his published letters. During cold winters, Ben suggested that Jane purchase wood on his account.

The book discusses other kin-keeping relationships, such as the older sister, whose role as a deputy mother intensified after the Revolution; antebellum sisters working together, such as Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell in medicine; slave siblings, whose strong bond often helped to liberate one another; and the evolving role of powerful sisterhood.

“Each of the different societies that accompanied and succeeded each other in the first half of American history relied on the sibling relationship to supply an important cushion – both against the sharp edges of that society’s particular compromise between freedom and order, and for the jarring knocks of transformation in the larger political, economic and cultural systems,” Hemphill writes. “Siblings did this by growing up together and exploring social roles among peers in the family circle, and then by supporting each other and remembering their common origins as they nurtured the next generation.”

This is Hemphill’s second book on an aspect of early American history. She is the author of Bowingto Necessities:  A History of Manners in America, 1620-1860. (Oxford University Press), which is a look at the regulation of class, age, and gender relations in America, from the frontier life of the 1600s to the democratic modernity of the mid-19th Century.  Work on that book was supported bya grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Hemphill teaches in the American Studies, History, and Women’s and Gender Studies programs at Ursinus College. She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Princeton University with a Ph. D. from Brandeis University. A specialist in American colonial, social and women’s history, she is the author of a number of scholarly papers and articles and served as etiquette consultant for “Mary Silliman’s War,” a film about an American family during the revolutionary war. Research on Siblings was funded by fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Winterthur Museum and Library.

Today, many children grow up with a single sibling. The spread of age grading and extension of schooling from pre-school to high school have caused younger siblings to go their separate ways, and, as Hemphill points out, sibling rivalry is accepted as the norm, with many books offering advice to parents on sibling quarrels and rivalry.

“These expectations are a world away from those that emerged in America in the decades following the American Revolution” writes Hemphill in her epilogue. “There was much less expectation of conflict and more of affection in the discourse about siblings of the early nineteenth century…History teaches us that we can be more proactive in expressing sibling love. We can look back to the rich relationships, and model these,” she writes. “We can take comfort from the past. . .  An understanding of the ways siblings functioned in  past time can, if we want, inspire us to adopt new family values and promise greater sibling solidarity today. It is not a bad idea – whether deployed from a shared playpen or adjoining porch rockers, our brothers and sisters offer an alliance that is hard to beat.”