John M. Dixon
The Enlightenment, a complex cultural phenomenon that lasted approximately from the late seventeenth century until the early nineteenth century, contained a dynamic mix of contrary beliefs and epistemologies. Its intellectual coherence arguably came from its distinctive historical sensibility, which was rooted in the notion that advances in the natural sciences had gifted humankind with an exceptional opportunity in the eighteenth century for self-improvement and societal progress. That unifying historical outlook was flexible and adaptable. Consequently, many aspects of the Enlightenment were left open to negotiation at local and transnational levels. They were debated by the philosophes who met in Europe’s coffeehouses, salons, and scientific societies. Equally, they were contested outside of Europe through innumerable cross-cultural exchanges as well as via long-distance intellectual interactions.
America—whether it is understood expansively as the two full continents and neighboring islands within the Western Hemisphere or, in a more limited way, as the territory that now constitutes the United States—played an especially prominent role in the Enlightenment. The New World’s abundance of plants, animals, and indigenous peoples fascinated early modern natural historians and social theorists, stimulated scientific activity, and challenged traditional beliefs. By the eighteenth century, the Western Hemisphere was an important site for empirical science and also for the intersection of different cultures of knowledge. At the same time, European conceptions of the New World as an undeveloped region inhabited by primitive savages problematized Enlightenment theories of universal progress. Comparisons of Native Americans to Africans, Asians, and Europeans led to speculation about the existence of separate human species or races. Similarly, the prevalence and profitability of American slavery fueled new and increasingly scientific conceptions of race. Eighteenth-century analyses of human differences complicated contemporary assertions that all men possessed basic natural rights. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the American Revolution focused international attention on man’s innate entitlement to life, liberty, and happiness. Yet, in a manner that typified the contradictions and paradoxes of the Enlightenment, the founders of the United States opted to preserve slavery and social inequality after winning political freedom from Britain.
Rachel Hope Cleves
The task of recovering the history of same-sex love among early American women faces daunting challenges of definition and sources. Modern conceptions of same-sex sexuality did not exist in early America, but alternative frameworks did. Many indigenous nations had social roles for female-bodied individuals who lived as men, performed male work, and acquired wives. Early Christian settlers viewed sexual encounters between women as sodomy, but also valued loving dyadic bonds between religious women. Primary sources indicate that same-sex sexual practices existed within western and southern African societies exploited by the slave trade, but little more is known. The word “lesbian” has been used to signify erotics between women since roughly the 10th century, but historians must look to women who led lesbian-like lives in early America rather than to women who self-identified as lesbians. Stories of female husbands who passed as men and married other women were popular in the 18th century. Tales of passing women who served in the military, in the navy, and as pirates also amused audiences and raised the spectre of same-sex sexuality. Some female religious leaders trespassed conventional gender roles and challenged the marital sexual order. Other women conformed to female gender roles, but constructed loving female households. 18th-century pornography depicting lesbian sexual encounters indicates that early Americans were familiar with the concept of sex between women. A few court records exist from prosecutions of early American women for engaging in lewd acts together. Far more common, by the end of the 18th century, were female-authored letters and diaries describing the culture of romantic friendship, which sometimes extended to sexual intimacy. Later in the 19th century, romantic friendship became an important ingredient in the development of lesbian culture and identity.