Holly Brewer is the Burke Professor of American History and an associate professor at the University of Maryland. She works on debates about justice in early America and the British Empire through the revolutionary period and into the nineteenth century. She is the author of By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (2005), which won three national prizes in legal history, as well as of the prizewinning "Entailing Aristocracy in Colonial Virginia" (The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 2 April 1997). She is currently finishing a book on the ideological origins of slavery in early America and the British Empire for which she received a Guggenheim fellowship. She is a keen supporter of K–12 history education and has provided content lectures on the prerevolutionary period for AP U.S. history teachers.
In this lecture I explore the connections between family order and political order, arguing that family order and the status of children were questions closely connected to the political order in the early modern period. In the seventeenth century children could become kings and lords, could be elected to legislatures, could serve on juries at age 14, and bind themselves to labor--or marriage--when under age ten. In order to challenge the hereditary powers of kings, it was necessary to develop a theory of government based on the consent of the governed. But who should consent? To be valid, consent could not be coerced or too strongly influenced; the consent of children was invalid on both counts, as they could be both forced and influenced. Indeed until children developed reason, they were the exemplar of those who should not be able to create binding consent, for if a child could consent, it invalidated the entire principle. Neither should consent be hereditary, and binding upon the next generation. Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these debates began to influence both common and statute law in England and its empire, particularly during periods of revolution. In the long term these arguments led to changes in how old one must be to hold office (e.g. in the U.S. Constitution), to broad public support for education, to America's juvenile courts, and other crucial public policies. But they have also left us with enduring debates about the rights of those whom we deem unable to legally consent.