What is household government? To the vast majority of those living in America from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century it was the government. The head of a household, invariably an adult male, had authority over the property, labor, and mobility of not only his minor children but also his wife, servants, slaves, and the occasional debtors, indigents, or orphans the county paid him to board in the absence of institutional facilities.

A History of Household Government in America tells the story of the seldom noted expansion and then dramatic contraction in household authority and the effects these changes had on the governmental system. The disintegration of household powers during the mid-nineteenth century—the household’s "civil war"—is much more central to what makes that period seem modern than industrialization or urbanization.

Carole Shammas offers new explanations for why the American household head became such an early victim of household egalitarianism. Previous theories involving the frontier or the Revolution have ignored other factors unique to the American household system such as testamentary freedom, weak lineage controls, and the lack of an established church, all of which left the head vulnerable to challenges by dependents. These factors also affected the development of social services: In the United States, public and private welfare agencies originated largely out of concerns about the adequacy of household management and discipline. Religious rivalries eventually forced a partial return to household solutions through a welfare state system. That history helps explain why even today any departure from heterosexual two-parent family units continues to be viewed as dysfunctional by a significant portion of the population.

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