David Center for the American Revolution Seminar: ""The Vale of Years into which I am very fast descending": Ideas and Realities of Aging in Revolutionary Times" with Rebecca Brannon

Rebecca Brannon

American Philosophical Society

Wednesday, September 13, 2023 3:00 pm EDT

The first 2023-2024 David Center for the American Revolution Seminar will take place September 13, 2023 at 3:00 p.m. ET on Zoom.
The speaker will be Rebecca Brannon. Rebecca is an associate professor of early American history at James Madison University. Her first book, From Revolution to Reunion: The Reintegration of the South Carolina Loyalists (USC Press) came out in 2016. She is currently working on Did the Founding Fathers Live Too Long? Old Men and Women and the American Revolution. She is also co-editing A Cultural History of Old Age in the Era of Enlightenment and Revolution (1650-1800) under contract with Bloomsbury.
Rebecca will be presenting her paper titled ““The Vale of Years into which I am very fast descending”: Ideas and Realities of Aging in Revolutionary Times.” A description of the paper is below. The paper will be pre-circulated to registered participants in advance of the seminar meeting. 
To attend the seminar and to receive a copy of the paper, please register via Zoom
The David Center for the American Revolution Seminar serves as a forum for works-in-progress that explore topics in the era of the American Revolution (1750-1820). Questions about the series may be directed to Adrianna Link, Head of Scholarly Programs, at alink@amphilsoc.org
NOTE: Seminars are designed as spaces for sharing ideas and works still in-progress. For this reason, this event will not be recorded.
What did people believe about old age and the aging process in the era of the American Revolution—and how did the growing popular culture and the excitement of “the young republic” drive changes in these ideas? There were many ways to understand aging—chronological age, functional age, and the complex mix of cultural roles and the realities of biological aging that shaped people’s bodies and lives.  Hearing loss, limited mobility, recurrent and ongoing pain, and worsening vision were all commonly expressed likely fears in old age. Some imagined old age as a time in which the body began to decompose above the ground in the ways it would later decompose after burial. Eighteenth-century Americans portrayed aging as an inevitable, if gradual, diminishment of the human form and of the ability to remain independent.  Men and women claimed continued usefulness as the beacon of a well-lived life and the lodestar of self-respect for aged Americans of all classes. Americans strove to be useful their entire lives, but continued claims to usefulness became the bedrock of their own self-respect in old age. When elderly men (and sometimes women) wrote their friends, they emphasized their own continued good health and independence in life. Thomas Jefferson enjoyed exchanging gossip about which of his wide circle of friends, acquaintances, and frenemies was ‘showing his age’ and becoming noticeably more decrepit. However, he was always quick to assure these gossipy correspondents that his own health and even physical fitness was still exemplary. Letter after letter recounted how far he could ride each day as a marker of his continued with-it-ness.