OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Charlene M. Boyer Lewis

Portrait of Charlene M. Boyer Lewis

Charlene M. Boyer Lewis is a professor of history and the director of the American studies program at Kalamazoo College. She specializes in women's history, southern history, and American cultural and social history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She is the author of Ladies and Gentlemen on Display: Planter Society at the Virginia Springs, 1790–1860 (2001), which focuses on the creation of southern planter identity at Virginia mountain resorts, and Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic (2012), which examines one woman's active role in the debates over society and culture in the early republic. Her next project is a study of Peggy Shippen Arnold and revolutionary America.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

This lecture examines the impact and influence of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, who had wed Napoleon's youngest brother, on the society and politics of the new American nation. With her notorious behavior, dashing husband, and associations with European royalty, she became one of America's first celebrities during a crucial moment when the character of American society and politics was not yet fully formed. Many Americans feared the corrupting influence of European manners and ideas on their new republic. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte's imperial connections and aristocratic aspirations made her a central figure in these debates over society and culture, with many, including members of Congress and the social elites of the day, regarding her as a threat.
Each summer between 1790 and 1860, hundreds and eventually thousands of southern men and women left the diseases and boredom of their plantation homes and journeyed to the springs of western Virginia for entertainment and for health. The Virginia Springs provided a theater of sorts, where contests for power between men and women, fashionables and evangelicals, blacks and whites, old and young, and even northerners and southerners played out--away from the traditional roles of the plantation. In their pursuit of health and pleasure, white southerners created a truly regional community at the springs. At this edge of the South, elite southern society shaped itself, defining what it meant to be a southerner and redefining social roles and relations.
This lecture will explore the architecture and surrounding man-made and natural landscapes of the Virginia Springs resorts in order to gain a deeper understanding of the values of elite southern society from the late 1700s through 1860. The built environment of the spas as well as the surrounding mountains, caves, and forests reaffirmed and, occasionally, challenged the hierarchical values and racial and gender definitions that formed the core of southern planter identity in the decades before the Civil War.
Peggy Shippen Arnold plotted with her husband Benedict to turn over West Point to the British in 1780 during the Revolutionary War. Yet, there was more to her life than this moment of treachery. The Arnolds’ treason took place within a larger debate over the nature of a republican culture. As Americans grappled with the meanings of republicanism as well as fluctuating ideas about gender, the Arnolds’ treasonous plot brought to light many questions. Could women be as political as men? How should married women be viewed–as separate entities or as extensions of their husbands? How should women serve the Patriot cause? More crucially, could a wife be a Patriot and her husband a Loyalist or vice versa? Did Loyalist wives constitute a threat? Did gender beliefs about “ladies” trump political views about enemies to the Revolution? Peggy Shippen Arnold demonstrates the distinct ways in which women of this era, both Loyalist and Patriot, participated in public culture and contributed to the important political and social discussions of the day.
In the revolutionary era the function of marriage and family in American society shifted and changed. Husband and wife, father and mother, daughter and son–all took on new meanings in this period. The expectations of spouses toward each other changed, with marriage increasingly carrying different emotional weight and higher expectations than in the past. Parents and children needed to negotiate new concepts of freedom with old concepts of loyalty and duty. This redefined American family emerged along with the new nation. The Revolution’s questioning of authority and emphasis on personal happiness contributed to the decline in the power of the patriarchal husband/father and the rise of an increasingly child-centered family presided over by a loving mother. The emotional lives of Americans would never be the same.