University of Southern California

USC News logo

Founding Fathers Sprouted Roots of Old Boy Network

09/14/98
Patriarchs saw ‘manly virtue’ as key to democratic government.
by Meg Sullivan
The American founders excluded women from politics, says political scientist Mark E. Kann. “What’s interesting is that they also excluded many men,” he said. It’s the origin of the old boy’s network that still defines American politics.

photo: Irene Fertik
Engage in “vigorous and manly exertion” consistent with “our character as men.” Invoke “the manly spirit” and practice “great, manly, and warlike virtues.” Consider “every vice as shameful and unmanly.”

Words of wisdom from a football coach? The Hell’s Angels? Robert Bly?

No, these macho admonitions come from none other than George Washington, James Madison and John Adams, respectively. And, according to a USC political scientist, these founding fathers were not alone in marshaling rhetoric that equated masculinity with the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship. In a new book, Mark E. Kann says that even members of the clergy and such celebrated champions of enlightenment as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson appealed to masculine vanity to promote lawful conduct, encourage popular consent, justify leadership and stabilize political authority.

“Self-conscious or not, nearly all founders relied on the grammar of manhood to convey the message that manly courage in the struggle for liberty and manly self-restraint in the exercise of liberty were the essence of republican citizenship. Women need not apply,” Kann writes in A Republic of Men: The American Founders, Gendered Language, and Patriarchal Politics.

In fact, the nation’s founders articulated a sort of pecking order that conferred rights on men according to the amount of manly virtue they possessed. Under the system, disorderly men were stigmatized as effeminate and the most virtuous men were lauded as leaders.

“There’s no question that the American founders excluded women from politics,” said Kann. “What’s interesting is that they also excluded many men. This really is the origin of the old boy’s network that still defines American politics.”

Kann also believes that his book, which took a decade to research, helps explain the inability of politics to tackle some of today’s most vexing problems.

“When you examine the writings of the American founders, you see taking form the themes of what will be considered legitimate politics for the next 200 years, and you begin to understand why political debate still excludes many people, particularly women,” said Kann, a professor of political science in the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Kann is the author of The American Left: Failures & Fortunes, Middle-Class Radicalism in Santa Monica, and On the Man Question: Gender & Civic Virtue in America.

Initially, appeals to manly virtues were used to inspire colonists to raise arms against the “effeminate imperial power” of the mother country, Kann found.

The Connecticut patriot minister Moses Mather rallied opposition to Britain by urging Americans “to nobly play the man for our country.” Similarly, the patriot Samuel Adams implored fellow Bostonians: “If you are men, behave like men.”

But later the pronouncements were aimed at reining in a newly liberated nation that appeared to teeter on the brink of anarchy.

“To rally the colonists against English rule, Revolutionary leaders had to say, ‘It’s O.K. to break the law,’” Kann said. “But once the English were gone, they had to turn around and say, ‘Wait a minute! You can’t keep breaking the law!’ The challenge really became curtailing what seemed to be a general lawlessness in the wake of revolt.”

In fact, the founders feared that America’s new-found liberty had touched off a crime wave.

Oh, Americans! Be Men,” the Connecticut minister Stanley Griswold implored in an 1801 sermon inspired by what he saw as men’s selfish excesses in the decades after the Revolution.

“The founders of this nation are largely remembered for their faith in the ability of men to govern themselves,” Kann said. “But they really harbored a deep skepticism. They believed most men to be very beastly, passionate, impulsive and self-interested. By appealing to their manhood, the founders hoped to control men. That appeal continues today among such groups as the Promise Keepers or Robert Bly’s mythopoetic movement.”

It’s well-known that the founders elevated white men to rights-bearing citizens while devaluing African men as dependents and Native American men as aliens. But in further violation of the Declaration of Indepen-dence’s promise that all men are created equal, the founders made political distinctions even among white men, Kann said.

In the chaotic period surrounding the Revolution, the founders saw the figure of the bachelor as the most dangerous element, lacking self-restraint, rationality and virtue and living by his “appetites” in what English forebears called a “lapsed state of manhood.”

“American leaders applied the grammar of manhood to stigmatize, ridicule, degrade and humiliate the bachelor by portraying him as a man-child who did not merit the rights of men, fraternal respect or civic standing,” Kann writes.

Franklin was the hardest on the bachelor, calling him a “grown boy” or “half man.”

“Take into your wise consideration the great and growing number of bachelors in the country, many of whom, from the mean fear of the expenses of family, have never sincerely and honorably courted a woman in their lives; and by their manner of living leave unproduced (which is little better than murder) hundreds of their posterity into the thousandth generation,” warned a female character in a story written by Franklin.

If the bachelor was lowest white man on the totem pole, the founders held out the family man as “a symbol of male maturity in the service of citizenship,” Kann found.

“Many founders felt that the family man’s sense of self-restraint and caring for posterity qualified him as a trustworthy man and deserving citizen,” Kann writes. “He was not apt to indulge passion or act on impulse lest he imperil his dependents and family dynasty.”

Alexander Hamilton described marriage as “a state which with a kind of magnetic force attracts every breast to it in which sensibility has a place,” although “the dull admonitions of prudence” might tempt young men to resist it. Demonstrating the manner in which Federalists equated fatherhood with having an important stake in the future of the young nation, Hamilton once described his own children as “the dearest pledges of [his] patriotism.”

But no matter how much the founders revered the family man, they did not place him at the pinnacle of liberty and freedom. Above even the dutiful husband and father rose what Franklin called “a worthy man,” a sort of man uniquely suited to leadership and lawmaking because of his ability to win the confidence of other men. Washington described such a leader as exhibiting “manly candor” accompanied by a “manly tone of intercourse” and a dispo-sition to deal freely with another man by treating him “like a friend.”

At the top of the heap meanwhile, sat truly exceptional men, who were viewed by founders as necessary to lead the nation to its destiny, Kann discovered. In the new country where all founders agreed that, as Thomas Paine said, “Law ought to be king,” this “heroic man” was considered above the law.

Adams saw the heroic man as a patriot who sought to establish “a government of laws and not of men” but also as a leader who knew that the way to secure a government of laws was “to depute power from the many to a few of the most wise and good.” Jefferson agreed that a great leader supported the rule of law but recognized that exigencies and opportunities might de-mand extralegal initiatives, Kann found.

In such carefully demarcated social strata, Kann sees the foundations of today’s political structure, which remains largely male-dominated. He also traces the scope of today’s politics back to this sexist dialogue at the birth of the nation.

“The focus of 200 years of politics has been on controlling disorderly men, both here and abroad,” Kann said. “Politics has been about men being the problem and men being the solution. Feminists have rightly complained that this focus has come at the expense of such issues as domestic violence.”