History/Legal Hist. III
Kansas Territory I
Kansas Territory II
Kansas Territory III
Kansas Territory IV
Kansas Territory V
Kansas Territory VI
Kansas Territory VII
Kansas Territory VIII
Cicero Lives! (I)
Cicero Lives! (II)
Cicero Lives! (III)
Cicero's Griefs (I)
Cicero's Griefs (II)
Cicero--On Old Age
Cicero's Letters (I)
Cicero's Letters (II)
Cicero's Letters (III)
Simon Greenleaf I
Greenleaf (new) II
Greenleaf (new) III
Greenleaf (new) IV
Greenleaf (new) V
Greenleaf (new) VI
How to Behave I
How to Behave II
Early Ct. Legal Hist I
Ct. Legal Hist. II
Ct. Legal Hist. III
Ct. Legal Hist. IV
Oregon Wagon Rd I
Oregon Wagon Rd II
Learing How to Behave II
Bill Long 8/1/08
Further Thoughts on The Evolution of the Conduct Book
The first conduct books originated in England and on the continent, were written by ministers and were especially concerned with inculcating faithfulness to God and renunciation of the pleasures and temptations of the world. Two sub-types of these early books were the "dying parent's legacy" and the "joyful death book." The former was written by a Christian parent on his/her deathbed and was full of advice on preparing for eternity (after all, the writer was about to die), on studying the Scriptures, and on avoiding certain behaviors. The latter would focus not so much on advice from a dying elder but on the experience of a dying child. Since this kind of death was all-too-common in the 17th-18th centuries, the authors of these stories would portray how such suffering children faced their death.
In one of the most influential of these books, James Janeway's A Token for Children (England, 1671), narratives of a dozen children who died young were given seriatim. The first one, about yong Sarah Howley, tells in laborious detail how she was convicted of sin as a child, pursued religious exercises, fell into her fatal illness and then exhorted all with astonishing fidelity and insight to cling to God in all circumstances. Of course, the hope was that this kind of example would not be lost on other children; if their dying compatriots saw that the goal of life was to put one's heart completely in the hands of a good God, why shouldn't the living child do the same?
These books about children's deaths contributed to a sort of Protestant hagiography. And, of course, the most ambitious and prolific American preacher in the late 17th/early 18th century (Cotton Mather), seeing the success of the genre, got himself into the act by his A Token, for the Children of New England. But, like the Apostle Peter in John 13, who at first was reluctant to have Jesus anoint him but then, when told that if would be a member of Christ, had to be anointed, wanted his whole body to be anointed, so Cotton Mather was not content with just one "conduct" book, but soon followed it with Addresses to Old men, and Young Men, and Little Children. He then wrote advice books to women and, in fact, to anyone who had any inclination to listen to him.
Conduct Books after Puritan Decline
But something happened in the new America of the late 18th-early 19th centuries. The harsh Puritanism of Mather and his ilk died out in the bright sun of republican philosophy. After all, how could the argument for Adam's representative standing for us, a representative we hadn't chosen, to bring us into sin, be convincing to people were in the process of throwing off British tyranny precisely because they couldn't choose their representatives? ("no taxation without representation"). And, as childhood mortality rates declined in the 19th century, how convincing would morbid or maudlin stories of early childhood death be to American youth who were "on the move?"
Yet the genre persisted, even as it changed its focus. Rather than focusing on the quest for salvation and the danger of premature and horrible death, the books increasingly were concerned with instilling a good dispostion and ready alacrity in young people. An example of this growing literature is the 1828 book Mentor, or Dialogues between a Parent and Children. As Newton describes it,
"The child asks questions the adult answers, and the topics are ones that suggest social and moral, rather than religious, implications: play, vanity, dancing, labor, lying, time, stealing, gaming, cursing and searing,and family," (Newton, p.23).
Thus, the conduct book has changed its focus, from how to prepare for the next world and to cultivate the attitudes here of obedience and spirituality, to how to make things work for you in this world.
The patently and simplistically moralistic message was sometimes developed through the story of family life. Of course, this was a "pretend" story, but it described the way that life was supposed to work. Christian Salzmann's 1795 work Elements of Morality for the Use of Children, translated from the German, tried to explore some of the abstract principles of living through family anecdote. Here is one story (if you can stomach it...). There is the family of Merchant Jones, his wife, and two children, Charles and Mary. One day Mary, instead of taking care of her bonnet, like a good little girl should do, dirtied it. Because of this, she isn't able to dress properly, and so cannot go to a family gathering. The lesson of this all?
"What a hateful thing is slovenliness, said she, it has deprived me of all my promised pleasure," (quoted in Newton, p. 24).
You get the picture. Moral virtues are illustrated by failings or success in family relations.
Sometimes these lessons could be related in verse. Since memorization of poetry was a much more common activity in those days than ours, the lessons of conduct could not only be effectively taught through this medium, but effectively carried with a hearer:
"Dear Child, these words which briefly I declare,
Let them not hang like Jewels in thine ear;
But in the secret closet of thine heart
Safe lock them up, that they may ne'er depart.
Give first to God the flower of thy youth,
Take for thy guide, his blessed word of truth.
Adorn theyself with grace, prize wisdom more
Than all the pears upon the Indic shore....
Take heed of idleness, that cursed nurse
And mother of all vice, there's nothing worse:
And fly from pride, high hills are barren found,
But lowly vallies with Christ's fruits are crown'd."
By the time you get to the mid-19th century, however, the tone has changed yet again. While God is still the center of the exhorations from about 1750-1850 (after the decline of Puritanism), and even though a Christian perspective is assumed after 1850, the emphasis is more and more on developing character traits useful in general life and in business/industry. For example, a book attributed to an "Aunt Alice" in 1854 (First Lessons in Gentleness and Truth), begins with:
"advice about honoring parents and the aged, extends to good behavior at the table and at school, admonishes young readers about being neat, orderly, honest, truthful and kind, and emphasizes industry and usefulness, including responsibilities to the poor," (p. 28).
The "bad child," Aunt Alice warns us, is one who "watches to see if he cannot do something that is forbidden and not get found out." Thus, rather than an emphasis being placed on sin and forgiveness, or on the terrors of hell, the focus has shifted to what best contributes to the child's social development. A child will succeed if s/he practices the virtues just enumerated.
Along with the exhortations of how to live well in the world come increasing differentiation in the roles that boys and girls are supposed to take on. "The little boy is very fond of a whistle, a cane, a knife and a little axe. The little girl is pleased with her doll; and she likes to have a little place of her own wher she can put her fine things," The Child's Instructor and Moral Primer (1823). A book from 1836 described things that should concern girls and boys. This table illustrates it:
Never be down-hearted
Always make the best of it
Do it well
Be on time
Set about it directly
Make good use of it
Conclusion--On Learning What to Avoid
Conduct books in the mid-late 19th century were not only full of advice of what to do, but also were concerned with what to avoid. As Newton says, "Without doubt, the juiciest parts of conduct books for girls and boys are those 'perilous situation,' revealed by means of cautionary tales and anecdotes of willfulness, danger, disobedience, and inevitable punishment," (p. 33). Though from the perspective of 2008 the following is pretty "tame," it was cited in a conduct book from mid-19th century.
"On a beautiful spring day [of course, life is always idyllic in the 19th century..] the loving mother had sent her little daughter to school. Carrying her schoolbooks, the little girl stopped a moment to pick a flower, chase a butterfly, and listen to a robin." She thought it would not be very wrong to play a little while. The next day she dawdles more and more, so that when she arrives (late) at school, she must lie about why she is tardy. Thus she advanced rapidly in crime...," (quoted in Newton, p. 34).
It is interesting to note that a trait that would be praised in 2008--childhood curiosity-- is interpreted by the mid-nineteenth century conduct books to be a fatal flaw. Directing yourself away from "duty" is the first step to a veritable life of crime.
Well, all this seems a little serious to us today, doesn't it? Indeed, it did to one of America's foremost humorists, Mark Twain. In 1875 he wrote two scathingly amusing stories in which he turned this tradition on its head--by showing that it was the good boy who was punished and the bad lad who prospered. The next essay describes these uproariously funny short stories.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long