Getting Old in the New Republic
Our global community is now living through a period in which the entire population is aging rapidly. Across the developed world—and increasingly across the developing world—we are going through a demographic transition. Average life expectancy from birth is higher, and adult women have fewer children than before. Demographers used to imagine population as a pyramid, with many young children at the bottom and a handful of elderly people at the top. Today, developed societies are transitioning to a rectangle, where there are similar numbers of people at every age range—children, working adults, and the elderly.
Journalists breathlessly repeat the line that now (or in the next five years) more adult diapers will be sold in Japan than baby diapers. As I was finishing this piece, the news story of the day was that Japan has lost a net one million people in the last five years and the population is expected to decline rapidly. This has come to stand in for all of our collective fears about our demographic transition—that our society will lose its creativity and drive as we age. We worry that our social safety nets, especially Medicare and Social Security, will not survive what some hysterical commentators have called the coming “grey tsunami.” Yet others who defend youth worry that we are becoming a gerontocracy, where resources and power go to older people (despite evidence that resources have almost always gone from the old to the young.) In short, this time of demographic transition has left us profoundly unnerved.
You would think no one ever got old before! We historians certainly know better. In fact, colonial Americans loved to claim that the number of aged people living in the new land was another marker of the greater healthfulness of the country. John Murrin argued that colonial New England “invented” grandparents. People who don’t study history often assume that the elderly were very, very rare until after World War II—but that is demonstrably not the case. John Demos’s population estimates in colonial New England found that the elderly were between 4 and 7 percent of the total population, which given the high fertility of the region, meant up to 14 percent of the adult population were elderly. Lynn Botelho finds similar figures for sixteenth and seventeenth century England. Old people were hardly scarce, and men and women who had lived into adulthood had every reason to believe that they could live past the age of sixty. Men and women were equally likely to live to old age in the period of the American Revolution, although there is some limited evidence that by the mid-nineteenth century, women’s life expectancy was higher than men’s. Today, of course, American women live longer than men.
What was old age anyway? When the government of colonial and Revolutionary America had to set an overall age, they usually chose sixty years old as the marker of attaining old age. For example, Puritan minister Increase Mather felt that people “who have attained to threescore  are everywhere accounted as old men.” Yet in practice, people’s own self-conception and the way others treated them seemed to have been based on their abilities to remain engaged in everyday life—which they expected to do until around the time of their death. Today’s Americans should recognize this, as people only half-jokingly say sixty is the new forty, and presumably eighty is the new sixty. Contemporary Americans don’t usually think of themselves as old at all, or only with great reluctance. Only 35 percent of Americans actually think that people are old at sixty-five years old, and 21 percent of Americans think people eighty-five and older are not old. Grey hair—a traditional marker of age—is only a marker of being old for 13 percent of Americans. Of course, one’s vantage point matters, too. Americans under thirty believe old age begins at sixty years old—exactly where colonial Americans put it. But middle-aged Americans think they will not be old until seventy years old, and people over sixty-five years old think they will not be old until seventy-four years old. Then as now, the elderly sometimes hesitated to self-define as old, as doing so would threaten their ability to be considered vital members of the community. They termed this “green old age.”
Old age could be a mixed bag in the early Republic. On the one hand, old men could still serve their country in high office. Benjamin Franklin was in his late seventies when he negotiated the final peace treaty ending the War for Independence. By the time he left the presidency, George Washington was sixty-five years old. Both of them gained public respect despite their age. Yet on the other hand, when adversaries wanted to attack them, they used their advanced age as a weapon. Thomas Jefferson made fun of Washington as a doddering old man whose nefarious cabinet of younger men was really running the country (and into the ground, from Jefferson’s point of view). Older men sometimes used their advanced age as a foil for avoiding government office assignments they did not want—and were consequently surprised when younger men took them at their word and failed to call on them for other, more attractive political offices.
Sometimes elderly people found their children were shutting them out of their lives—either from a desire for independence and self-determination that the American Revolution invigorated, or because those children felt that their parents would needlessly worry about them if they offered up too many details. Understandably, elderly people pushed back. Mary Hubbard admonished her children to “remember when you write that people do not loose [sic] their curiosity by age, but want to know things as they happen, as how you all do, how my family goes on.” She beautifully defended her own desire to remain an integral and emotionally close part of the next generation of her family, while also defending old people as still mentally engaged. Although she had to remind her children she was still a person of worth, her plea worked, and the warm familial correspondence continued.
Americans did not look forward to aging with pleasure in the past either, but they seem to have been spared the existential dread that now drives us to steadily increase expenditures on plastic surgery. It was baby boomers who made the phrase “don’t trust anybody over thirty” an American mantra—but those same baby boomers are now qualifying for Social Security, contemplating retirement, and rejecting their own chilling vision of the elderly as useless has-beens. At a time when old age was expected to begin at sixty years old, sixty-one-year-old Peter Gallaudet of early national Hartford, Connecticut, noted in his diary that in “the days of my youth and middle age there is no recalling these stages of life, old age is advancing…I descend into the valley with a full view before me.”
People in colonial and revolutionary America hoped to live long, healthy lives, just as Americans do now. They recognized that elderly people often suffered some aches and pains and sometimes even debilitating conditions. But unlike contemporary Americans, people did not expect they might linger for years suffering from terrible health or the complete loss of mental competence. Today the long senescence of Alzheimer’s and heart disease is the American nightmare, wherein we live a long life culminating in terror about how it could end. Early Americans expected the possibility of short periods of poor health, and a longer period in which they were unable to see or move as well as they did in the prime of life. But they were not likely to expect, or fear, ending up bed-ridden or non compos mentis. The ceramic figure of an old man produced in England and sold in the early nineteenth century shows a man on crutches—a little lame, but still able to get around, with copious hair and without spectacles. Because older people still felt capable of maintaining physical activity and social lives, they did not fear old age as much as many do now. Then as now, older, poorer people had fewer choices. Now Medicaid will pay their way to nursing homes of dubious quality. Reformers inspired by the revolution also sought to take care of those they saw as the deserving aged poor and created a new philanthropic institution to take care of them—the old age asylum for poor women, which would separate them from the “undeserving poor” and give them a pleasant space for the rest of their lives. Philadelphia created the first such institution in 1849. The philanthropists in charge were pleased when women who moved into their facility lived longer than expected, since that seemed a marker of the high quality of care offered. Occasionally they were chagrined as they found it difficult to offer enough new places because older women were not dying as fast as they had expected.
In some ways, the very concept of generations was born not with the baby boomers but with the generation of 1776. The American revolutionaries considered themselves a generation, and historians have written about them as the generation of 1776 ever since. Americans imagined themselves as a young nation—even an infant nation. General George Washington, at the conclusion of the eight-year war for American independence and as a man already in his fifties, wrote of his “young nation.” The American Revolution swept away old notions of privileging the wisdom gained by age and therefore offering respect for the aged. Instead, the revolution privileged youth, as it was now seen as the source of creativity and vitality—the place of fresh ideas for a nation making a fresh start.
Later generations of Americans came to see the Founding Fathers as old. In their portraits, they are depicted as old men. But the American Revolution was a youthful revolution, and revolutionaries saw youthfulness as an important guarantor of the newness of their ideas and resolve. Thomas Jefferson was thirty-three years old when his Declaration of Independence was signed; the Marquis de Lafayette was only eighteen; and George Washington was considered the experienced guiding hand at the age of forty-four. The only old man was Benjamin Franklin at the age of seventy on the very first Independence Day. However, Benjamin Franklin’s efforts in favor of the revolution often succeeded precisely because he came across as a man younger than his age. All that flirting in Paris was meant to show him as anything but old.
One reason Americans so enthusiastically embraced a vision of the “young nation” was that there were many more young people as a percentage of the total population. Today, we may have slightly more than twice as many old people in the United States as a percentage of the total population as there were at the time of the American Revolution. Longer life expectancy has come together with a two-century decline in American birth rates. At this moment, American women average 1.9 children per woman—a birth rate noticeably below the replacement rate of 2.1. Many industrialized European and Asian countries have even lower birth rates. Our fear of our current demographic transition is often couched in terms of countries “going grey,” but what is really happening is that birth rates have rapidly declined to below the rate required to replace the existing population. Revolutionary Americans found it easier to imagine their new republic as youthful, since everywhere they looked there were young people. Colonial Americans celebrated fertility, and American birth rates reached an all-time high during the Seven Years War. That bumper crop of Americans came into adulthood as the American Revolution went forward and inherited a new world in their twenties and thirties. As Susan Klepp has shown, American women began to value their time highly enough that the American birth rate began its long descent starting in the 1780s. But the sudden drive to limit family size and to deliberately create smaller families was inspired by revolutionary ideals. This happened, however, after the previous generation had brought the revolutionary generation into existence.
Heartbreakingly for some members of the revolutionary generation, their own children, born in a smaller generation that inherited the revolution without having to risk their own lives to bring it into fruition, also embraced the ideal of a youthful republic. The new generation saw their fathers and their father’s generation as outmoded. (And yes, it was very gendered.) They were grateful for the revolutionary generation’s war heroism and great efforts to create the new Republic, but Joyce Appleby has pointed out that they also thought the generation that created the revolution could not fully enter into this new world, as they were held back by their upbringing and expectations derived from the colonial world. Young men of the immediate post-revolutionary generation saw themselves as creating a new world of commerce, fueled by individual achievement unfettered by the hidebound ways of the past. In many cases, they turned this vision of an entirely new generation who was making a new world into anger against their fathers—a rage they continued to feel even as they became aged men themselves and began to write memoirs. Part of becoming the revolutionary generation was a rejection of those before them—a rejection of their patriarchal fathers, but also a sad rejection of their nearest and dearest, who even with the benefit of hindsight, they rejected as aged has-beens who did not understand their sons and the new world the revolution created.
Yet even the young nation had its compensations for old people. Benjamin Franklin exulted in the idea that the newly invigorated republic of science could even lengthen human life spans. Franklin wrote: “All Diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured, not excepting even that of Old Age, and our Lives lengthened at pleasure.” Benjamin Franklin was already seventy-four years old when he looked forward to the pleasures of an old age, and he would live another decade. For Franklin, science could guarantee not only a longer life span, but also a longer healthy life span. Americans also promoted the ideal of the intrinsic healthfulness of the American environment. It could make everyone healthier—even old people. American medical writer William Barton asserted in 1791 that more people survived to at least the age of eighty in the United States than in Europe. For Barton and the many other writers who promoted these ideas, the revolution guaranteed a place where both young people and old people could live better lives than anywhere else in the world. Dr. Benjamin Rush went so far as to claim that if old Europeans were to move to the United States, the climate would make them younger and allow them to live even longer.
Americans may not have ever found the long-desired fountain of youth, but at heart they believed they had found the next best thing—a place that was uniquely conducive to living eighty healthy, independent years. The World Bank, using United Nations data, estimated that a baby born in the United States in 2013 would live to seventy-nine years old. Contemporary Americans who make it to sixty-five can expect to live even longer—to an average for eighty-four for men and eighty-six for women. Perhaps we ought to embrace the fact that we now live the dream of many ordinary eighteenth-century Americans—to live eighty good years on this continent.
Rebecca Brannon is an assistant professor of history at James Madison University in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She is the author of From Revolution to Reunion: The Reintegration of South Carolina Loyalists, which will come out in September 2016 from the University of South Carolina Press. She is currently working on a new book project on aging men in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world.
Jonathan Soble, “Japan Lost Nearly a Million People in 5 Years, Census Says,” Feb. 27, 2016, New York Times.
John Murrin, “Review Essay,” History and Theory, 11 (May 1972), 226–75.
Paula A. Scott, Growing Old in the Early Republic: Spiritual, Social, and Economic Issues, 1790–1830 (1997), 12–13; Terri L. Premo, Winter Friends: Women Growing Old in the New Republic, 1785–1835 (1990).
Increase Mather, Two Discourses (1716), 120.
Paul Taylor et al., "Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality," Pew Research Center (2009).
Mary Hubbard to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner Green, Newport, RI, July 29, 1803, Hubbard-Greene Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
Scott, Growing Old, 10.
Made in Staffordshire, England, United Kingdom between 1801–1830, number L0057096, Wellcome Images, London, with credit to the Science Museum of London.
Association for the Relief of Aged Indigent Females (1850), Massachusetts Historical Society.
Susan E. Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760–1820 (2009).
Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (2000), 172–73.
Benjamin Franklin to Dr. Joseph Priestley, February 8, 1780, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 31, ed. Barbara B. Oberg (41 vols., 1995), 455–56.
W. Andrew Achenbaum, Old Age in the New Land: The American Experience since 1790 (1978), 12–13.