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Child Labor and Schooling in Late Eighteenth-Century New England: One Boy's Account

Carole Shammas
The William and Mary Quarterly
Vol. 70, No. 3 (July 2013), pp. 539-558
DOI: 10.5309/willmaryquar.70.3.0539
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5309/willmaryquar.70.3.0539
Page Count: 20
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Child Labor and Schooling in Late Eighteenth-Century New England: One Boy's Account
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Abstract

Just how much the colonial American economy depended on the labor of white children remains an open question, especially for the later eighteenth century, which most historians of education consider a period of increased schooling. The diary of Quincy Thaxter, the twelve-year-old younger son of an affluent Hingham farmer, local official, and Harvard graduate, offers insight into his work regime and that of neighborhood youth as well as information on his attendance at the nearby school. The diary suggests that boys aged ten to fifteen constituted about one-fifth of the local agricultural labor force. Though Massachusetts led the British colonies in its enthusiasm for education and Quincy's father could have afforded to hire a worker in place of his son, he did not. Even in well-off rural New England households with a dedication to learning, more importance was placed on farm tasks than on regularized schooling or the timely acquisition of the penmanship, spelling, and grammatical skills required of anyone keeping accounts or performing official duties in the community. The nature of eighteenth-century classroom pedagogy may have had something to do with the desultory attitude toward formal instruction.

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