Laws targeting bachelors in colonial America

Today, men are increasingly rejecting marriage and traditional civic expectations in preference for living as bachelors, men going their own way, sōshoku danshi, or whatever names we use for men who shun traditional expectations. While most of these men boast of freedoms they enjoy in comparison to others, it’s important to remember that history has not always been kind to them. In this article, Dr. John G. McCurdy gives examples below of anti-bachelor laws from American history.—PW

In 1756, the province of Maryland began collecting a bachelor tax. The immediate cause for the levy was the recent entry of Great Britain and her American colonies into a worldwide conflict known as the Seven Years’ War or, in the colonies, the French and Indian War. Desperate for new sources of revenue, the Maryland House of Delegates taxed nearly everything in the colony: land, slaves, alcohol, billiards tables, and bachelors. Specifically, the province targeted wealthy single men, requiring that bachelors “of the Age of Twenty-five Years or upwards, and have in Possession, in their own Right, an Estate of One Hundred Pounds Current Money and Upwards” to pay five shillings a year and those who had three hundred pounds or more to pay twenty. For eight years, Maryland collected this impost on unmarried men, which brought in between £300 and £500 per year, or between seven and thirteen percent of the province’s total revenue. Hundreds of bachelors paid the bachelor tax each year including the attorney general, the mayor of Annapolis, and several Maryland legislators. Although Governor Horatio Sharpe was himself a lifelong bachelor, he refused to pay the tax, believing that as a representative of the crown, local laws did not apply to him.

The Maryland bachelor tax of 1756 was not the only instance of laws that applied explicitly to the unmarried in colonial America. Since the arrival of the first English colonists in the early seventeenth century, colonial lawmakers had repeatedly passed statutes that singled out singles for unique treatment. These laws had their origin in English jurisprudence, although they evolved in response to the conditions of colonial life. In the 1630s, Massachusetts passed a law that required “that all townes shall take care to order & dispose of all single p[er]sons & inmates wth their towne to servise, or otherwise.” This law prevented the unmarried from living on their own and soon spread to Connecticut and Rhode Island where it continued in effect until the late seventeenth century. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire also adopted laws that encouraged judges to pressure single fornicators to marry their partners and that allowed towns to sell into servitude bachelors who could not afford to buy guns and thus serve in the militia.

These earliest laws were quite different from the Maryland bachelor tax that came more than a century later. First, they did not only apply to men. The law prohibiting the unmarried from living alone applied as fully to single women as it did to single men. Second, the laws did not apply to wealthy singles, but the youngest and the poorest. In the wilderness of early New England, a great deal of pressure was placed on the family as a unit of government as it was believed that everyone needed to be under the authority of a paterfamilias. Until young men became fathers and masters themselves, the law ensured that they would remain dependents on another man. Third, these laws did not go unchallenged. The Massachusetts legislature repeatedly reminded the towns that it was their responsibility to police their single men, although the towns often ignored these instructions and granted permission to bachelors to live alone—or with other bachelors. Unmarried fathers likewise thumbed their noses at the colony’s fornication law, opting to pay fines or face corporal punishment rather than marry the mothers of their children. By 1668, Massachusetts lawmakers acknowledged the failure of the fornication law and moved to require the colony’s bachelor fathers to simply pay child support.

As English settlers erected more colonies, the singles laws spread up and down the Atlantic seaboard. By the time of the American Revolution, laws explicitly applying to the unmarried had spread to eleven of the thirteen colonies that later became the United States. As the laws spread, their application changed. New York, Maryland, and Massachusetts approved statutes in the early eighteenth century that provided lighter sentences for married debtors than for single ones. At the same time, Pennsylvania implemented a host of sex crime laws that connected penalties to one’s marital status. A single man convicted of rape could be deprived of his entire estate, while a married man would only lose a third. Harsher sentences also faced Pennsylvania bachelors convicted on adultery, bigamy, and fornication. However, in the case of sodomy and bestiality, single men in Pennsylvania actually made out better than their married counterparts. Although all men faced imprisonment and floggings for their first offense, if a man was convicted of sodomy or bestiality more than once, the law insisted that as “a married man, he shall also suffer castration.” As this law suggests, colonial lawmakers apparently did not draft the bachelor laws because they feared that unmarried men were more likely to be homosexuals.

As the bachelor laws changed over time, they increasingly applied only to men. In part, this was because men in the eighteenth century were beginning to assert themselves as independent even if they were unmarried or owned no property. Indeed, bachelors refuted the earliest singles laws by insisting on their right to live as they pleased and to have sex outside of marriage, liberties that colonial authorities were increasingly willing to grant them. Single women, however, did not win the same type of freedom and remained effectively dependent in the eyes of the law.

As more single men asserted their independence, a new type of law emerged: the bachelor tax. Indeed, once single men demonstrated that they could support themselves, the government reasoned that they could also pay their own taxes. After 1660, Parliament had introduced a series of taxes on unmarried Britons as well as tax breaks for married men with four or more children. In America, New York collected a short-lived bachelor tax in 1703 to help fund the colony’s defense, although it was Pennsylvania that implemented the most long-lasting bachelor tax. In 1693, Pennsylvania lawmakers exempted men from pay taxes if they had “a great charge of children.” Three years later, the assembly added a provision requiring that all men over the age of sixteen who “have not families or charge to maintain, and are not under their parents tuition,” to pay six shillings per year. In 1711, this was simplified to “single freemen.” Authorities collected this tax for the rest of the eighteenth century and the language was not entirely expunged from Pennsylvania’s laws until 1919.

The target of the Pennsylvania bachelor tax was not all single men, but rather those who did not own real estate. Such men were typically young and often lived and worked with a family who paid them wages. Recent work on labor in the colonies suggests that Pennsylvania single freemen were among the highest paid workers in colonial America and thus we might understand why provincial legislators were so eager to tax them. Nevertheless, the tax burden on Pennsylvania’s bachelors was quite steep. Although the tax began at six shillings, it fluctuated depending on the financial needs of local officials. During times of war, this tax was augmented by special levies that could easily double a bachelor’s tax bill. Tax records reveals that Pennsylvania’s bachelors often faced a higher tax burden than property owners who paid land taxes. In Chester County, local taxes on single freemen were higher than property taxes on eighty to ninety percent of landowners, while in Bedford and Lancaster counties, bachelors paid more in local taxes than approximately seventy-five percent of men with real estates.

It is difficult to discern how much social engineering was at work in the Pennsylvania bachelor tax or the ones that followed in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and North Carolina. The progression of the Pennsylvania legislation—beginning as a tax break for men with children—suggests that lawmakers wanted to promote marriage and family. Similarly, the Maryland bachelor tax of 1756 included explicitly anti-bachelor language. The Maryland law announced its intent to promote “holy Estate of Matrimony” as well as “the more orderly Propagation of Mankind,” such that “the continuing in a State of Celibacy discountenanced, especially in every Infant Country” had to be discouraged. Despite this language, however, the actual bite of the tax probably drove few men to the altar. The amount that a bachelor worth a hundred pounds faced—five shillings—was the same amount as the land tax on five hundred acres, while the twenty shillings demanded of bachelors worth more than three hundred pounds was only a third of the assessment on billiards tables. Moreover, Maryland proved reluctant to renew the bachelor tax once the Seven Years’ War ended. Although the assembly considered extending the levy in order to fund a public college, it ultimately rejected the idea.

Moreover, we might consider the discussions of the bachelor tax in the British and colonial press. Many English writers—including novelist Daniel Defoe, political theorist James Harrington, and economist Charles Davenant—promoted the idea of a bachelor tax to reign in single men’s immorality and to bolster the population of the kingdom. These and other authors drew attention to the practice of taxing bachelors in ancient Rome in the time of Augustus Caesar. Such ideas were transmitted to the colonies where they were reprinted in American newspapers. At the same time, however, other authors poked fun at the premise of the bachelor tax. An English pamphlet from 1695 titled The Levellers contained the fictional dialogue of two women so desperate to find husbands that they demanded Parliament tax bachelors at ever higher rates until they would marry them. The pamphlet was not serious but included the proposal that bachelors should be consigned to an almshouse “wherein every one of them shall be chained about the Middle to a Post, like a Monkey.” As a humorous commentary on an actual debate, works like The Levellers discredited the bachelor tax as harmful government meddling in the personal lives of individuals. This type of humor also made its way across the Atlantic and informed some of the early satirical writings of Benjamin Franklin. Although Franklin had an overwhelmingly negative view of bachelors, he always stopped short of promoting a tax to punish them. Indeed, in Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind from 1751, Franklin announced that bachelors were not really a problem in America. Because of the plentiful land, men in the colonies could marry earlier and father considerably more children than Britons, preventing the need for punitive taxation.

The bachelor laws reached the apex of their popularity during the American Revolution. As cash-strapped states struggled to pay for soldiers and weapons to win their independence, they placed ever higher taxes on unmarried men. They also adopted conscription laws that drafted single men into the army while exempting married ones from service. However, unlike what had been the case during the colonial period, bachelors received something in exchange for their taxes. In 1776, revolutionaries in Pennsylvania wrote the state’s first constitution, a radical document that promised equality to all citizens. It also broadly expanded the franchise, extending the right to vote to “Every freeman of the full age of twenty-one years” who had “paid public taxes.” With this, all the propertyless bachelors who had been paying taxes were suddenly enfranchished. To be sure, bachelors were not the only men given the full rights of citizenship by the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, although tax records suggest that forty percent of the new voters in Chester County and twenty-five percent in Lancaster County were propertyless unmarried men. Similar taxpayer suffrage provisions enfranchised taxed bachelors in Revolutionary North Carolina.

By the time of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, whereby Great Britain formally recognized the independence of the United States, the bachelor laws were well on their way to becoming a vestige of the colonial past. Through their service to the Continental Army, bachelors had gained greater respect among Americans, while others were able to capitalize on the Declaration of Independence’s promise that “all men were created equal.” Women and African Americans were barred from full citizenship in the new republic, but lawmakers made quick work of the statutes that delineated different rights and obligations for white men based on property, religion, and marital status. The bachelor laws were slowly expunged from the laws of the new states, although their spirit has never entirely disappeared from the nation’s statutes. Indeed, the debate over the so-called “marriage penalty tax” in the late 1990s and efforts on the part of federal and state lawmakers to provide “marriage incentives” to unwed parents suggest the persistence of the colonial bachelor laws even today.

A Note on Sources:
This article is taken from my book Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States. Citation for the quotations featured here can be found in the book.

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