A perennial quest for American manhood

A perennial quest for American manhood

Virginia Heffernan writes:

In reviewing the history of American manhood, it’s astounding to discover how long masculinity has been framed as “in crisis”; in the telling of these writers, it’s never not been in crisis. From the 18th-century elite to [Republican Senator Josh] Hawley and his conservative confrères, the project of defining and protecting American “manhood” doubles as a way to define and protect some obscure American essence — and these men, whether in wartime or peacetime, whether in traditional or untraditional societies, cannot stop worrying that they’re losing their authority over it.

In the 18th century, the French writer J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur framed American manhood as an open question: “What, then, is the American, this new man?”

The new man was implicitly contrasted with the old. When they first arrived, European settlers, aware that they were unequipped to face the continent’s terrain and its indigenous inhabitants, were quick to define themselves against their own Europeanness. Europe, by contrast, was cast as an effeminate place, identified with dandyism, decadence, and incompetence. But depending on which part of the America-Europe distinction a man emphasized, his philosophy of masculinity could be the Adams type, or the Hamilton one.

Adams Masculinity was the version of American manliness proposed by President John Adams in 1797, when he sought to designate Hercules as the nation’s avatar because the demi-god son of Zeus chose domestic virtue over sexual pleasure. Adams Masculinity frowns on tomcatting and affairs. I’ve come to think of Hawley’s version of manhood as Adams Masculinity.

Meanwhile, its opposite, Hamilton Masculinity, which is also Trump Masculinity, is good with tomcatting and affairs. In an open letter published in October, 1800, Hamilton described Adams as blundering, ignorant, vain, and jealous. For his part, Adams wrote in an 1806 letter to a friend that Hamilton suffered from “a superabundance of secretions which he could not find whores enough to draw off.” Each thought he was the manlier man. [Continue reading…]

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