It became clear, in the course of general reading, that a variety of 19th-century observers in the nation and in Massachusetts were indeed aware that the size of the American family was changing, and that this was cause for alarm. Was this also the case in Connecticut? Indeed it was, but with a significant difference: Connecticut residents, though concerned about decrease in family size, were not as extreme in their reactions as were observers in Massachusetts. Why this should have been the case could constitute a research project for a student or students interested in doing independent work, or searching for a new topic for a term paper.
When it became clear that awareness of decline in the size of the American family had generated significant discussion, other considerations also emerged. The family that was declining was not just the American family: it was identified as the family of native-born Americans. In fact, it was the Yankee family. Contemporary concern was clearly linked to the influx of immigrants into the New England states, and concern only loosely masked a fear of what the immigrants would do to traditional values when they attained a numerical majority. In addition, the time when concern was most loudly voiced was in the period immediately following the Civil War, when the nation as a whole experienced a social readjustment to peacetime, made more demanding by the problems associated with Reconstruction and a generalized economic depression. New England political leaders, long challenged in their national role, lost more ground to political forces from other regions.
Furthermore, the main participants in the discussion about the implications of the declining Yankee family were clergymen and doctors, both groups experiencing competition in their drive for cultural leadership. The clergymen had been long threatened by the secularizing tendencies of American life and were in serious danger of losing their grip on their old role of moral leadership; the doctors, in contrast, had experienced their worst period of competition in the Jacksonian period, when licensing laws were extremely loose and when the country swarmed with a variety of medical practitioners, all vying for patients and hawking a wild array of cures. By the 1860s the “regular doctors,” those who had graduated from the major medical schools of the time, had galvanized their forces and were seeking to drive out the competition through the professionalization of their occupation.
And this was not all. The family crisis emerged at the same time that the American women’s rights leaders were regrouping their forces after the lag in their activities produced by the war. They were pushing hard for the extension of political rights, as such rights were being extended to the newly freed Negroes. Westward expansion was also at issue, since it was the citizens of New England who were packing up and leaving, abandoning their places to the immigrants. As well, this was a time when science was gaining a hold on the American mind, replacing reliance on the Bible as the source of ultimate truth.
Since many of those who raised the alarm also named the city as, if not the cause, at least the major accomplice in the “tragedy” that was occurring, urbanization, too, had to be considered. Clearly, the crisis in the family perceived by observers in the late 1860s and 1870s, could become a focus for the examination of the larger social crisis which Americans experienced in the years following the war.