"Rescuing some youthful minds" : benevolent women and the rise of the orphan asylum as civic household in early Republic Natchez

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Date

2007-05

Authors

Zey, Nancy Elizabeth

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Abstract

In 1816 a group of white, affluent women in Natchez, Mississippi founded the Female Charitable Society, one of many ladies' associations in the early republic devoted to the care of poor and orphaned children. Born during a pervasive evangelical awakening, the Society established a charity school then, after a few years, constructed an orphan asylum. In doing so, benevolent women created not only a shelter for parentless boys and girls but a "civic household" of which they served as a collective head. Supported by charitable contributions rather than tax revenue, the orphan asylum functioned as a model environment, one that would rear prepubescent white children to be moral and industrious in trades that befit their born condition. The asylum also represented an opportunity for personal spiritual renewal on the part of donors as well as a landmark of municipal refinement. By promoting themselves as the natural caretakers of poor young children and fostering a culture of sympathy for them, benevolent women challenged the primacy of the statutory system of juvenile relief, which dated back to the earliest days of colonial settlement. Gradually, the Female Charitable Society raised the standard of relief for prepubescent indigent minors, diverted them from bound apprenticeship, wrested jurisdiction over them from male county officials, and gathered them into the household. The female-run orphan asylum largely supplanted apprenticeship as the preferred system of juvenile relief in Natchez, mirroring developments in other cities around the country. This study investigates why and how the orphan asylum emerged as a prominent form of juvenile relief in the United States. Using Natchez as a case study, this work underscores the role of benevolent women in effecting concrete transformations within the community as well as the impact of changes in domestic familial relations on child welfare. This study also expands the notion of "republican motherhood" to include "civic motherhood," that is, the public cultivation of maternal authority over poor children. Members of the Natchez Female Charitable Society positioned themselves as the rightful guardians of white, indigent boys and girls and was eventually granted legal authority over them by the State of Mississippi.

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