Since even before our nation was founded, America has had a skeptical, conflicted view of bachelors.
It began with — what else? — taxes, in that taxes in colonial America were determined by how much acreage a man owned. Of course, the only men who owned land were ones with wives and families. Bachelors were considered a bunch of untrustworthy shitheads by comparison, which led to the establishment of so-called “bachelor laws” in many of the colonies.
For instance, in 1696, Pennsylvania imposed a tax on single men aged 16 and older. About 50 years later, Delaware instituted a tax on single men “who have no visible estates.” Maryland had a similar tax on “freemen with no families” in the 1780s. New Jersey taxed single men until 1802, and forced them to pay more if they owned a horse. And North Carolina taxed single men during the Revolutionary War unless they were soldiers. Meanwhile, other laws forced unmarried men into compulsory military service, or to marry the women they impregnated.
All of these laws and taxes were rooted in a cultural fear of bachelors, who, according to Eastern Michigan University history professor John G. McCurdy, were regarded as existential threats to the country’s well-being. They didn’t vote or provide their fair share to the government. Instead, all they did was fill the world with their bastard children, whom the government would have to care for. Taxes were the only way to have them make a meaningful contribution to society.
But bachelors did play a role in the founding of America. As McCurdy notes, three of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were unmarried at the time: Joseph Hewes of North Carolina, Caesar Rodney of Delaware and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts (who married later in life). And seven of the 39 men who signed the Constitution were bachelors in 1787, most notably James Madison. “Madison, the father of our Constitution, isn’t even married, let alone a father, when he writes it,” says McCurdy, the author of Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States.
“With Enlightenment ideals making their way into America [in the late 18th century], you have greater focus on individuals and less on family,” McCurdy continues. (It’s also around this time that nearly all bachelor-specific taxes and laws were eradicated.) “As part of that, you find that society stops seeing single men as single, but as men.” That is, men with inalienable rights, regardless if they ever get married. (Unfortunately, it would take America 150 years to apply this same philosophy to women and African-Americans.)
Still, a sizeable segment of society remained skeptical of bachelors. Benjamin Franklin once famously said “a man without a wife is but half a man,” and McCurdy says others accused bachelors of being lazy, selfish and sexually immoral. During the Civil War, American culture began to equate bachelorhood with homosexuality. That perception gained even more traction post-World War II. At the same time, however, the bachelor also starts to embody America’s fiercely independent spirit — a man who defies convention to live life on his own terms.
“Independence cuts two ways,” McCurdy says. On one hand, he says, a free society shouldn’t regulate people’s personal lives. “But there’s this idea that the nation is being formed, and we need people getting married and having children [as well]. [Author] Parson Weems, the man who writes the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, makes this appeal to citizen bachelors that it’s their duty to get married because this new nation needs people in it.”
It speaks to our competing images of the ideal American man. Is he the freewheeling bachelor who spends his life on a Kerouacian adventure, experiencing all America has to offer? Or is he the family man who makes America stronger by settling into a community, mowing his lawn every day and coaching tee-ball?
At least politically, we’ve always seemed to favor the latter. Only two of our 45 presidents were bachelors — Grover Cleveland, who married while holding office, and James Buchanan, who is widely considered the worst president in American history. More recently, the decrease in the marriage rate, especially among blue-collar men, has been called a detriment to the health of our society. With more bachelors, the argument goes, come more children growing up in unstable households that lack a steady, positive male presence.
“The bachelor has always been a two-faced figure in American culture,” McCurdy says. “They’re celebrated as young, sexual, free and attractive. At the same time, there are these fears: Does more single men mean more crime? Will they not care for the women they impregnate? … And when we talk about people not getting married and having children anymore, we talk about moral, religion and traditional gender roles coming apart.”
So basically, the bachelor still represents the best and worst parts of America, depending on how you think about him.
Just like he has since America was born.