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Bachelor Citizens: Marital Status and Political Participation

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For some time, the news media has touted the diversity of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Many of the hopefuls are female, black, Latino, Asian, and openly gay. This diversity conforms to the Democratic party’s vision of itself as representative of the American public, although this has led to some soul-searching as most of the racial minorities have been excluded from the December debate.

Lost in this coverage is the presence of an unmarried man: Cory Booker. Although fifty years old, the senator from New Jersey has never legally married. Booker has received attention as one of the nation’s “Top 40 Bachelors” in Town & Country, but this dimension of his identity rarely surfaces in The New York Times.

Lost in this coverage is the presence of an unmarried man: Cory Booker.

Why has Cory Booker’s bachelorhood not received more attention, especially in a time when a candidate’s identity is central to politics?  

To be sure, unlike women or most racial minorities, bachelors have not been barred from the White House. James Buchanan was single during his four years as president, while Grover Cleveland took the oath of office before he took a wife. Nevertheless, fewer bachelors than Unitarians have been president.

To be sure, unlike women or most racial minorities, bachelors have not been barred from the White House.

The underrepresentation of single men in politics can, in part, be attributed to perceptions about bachelors. Buchanan faced nasty rumors about his sexuality, while those uncomfortable with President Trump’s less-than-honorable treatment of women are no doubt somewhat assuaged by his marriage and fatherhood. The image of the candidate surrounded by his wife and children has become such an expected part of the campaign that current presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg often emulates this scene with his husband Chasten and their pet dogs.

The image of the candidate surrounded by his wife and children has become such an expected part of the campaign that current presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg often emulates this scene with his husband Chasten and their pet dogs.

Such familial expectations are supposed to make us feel uncomfortable, brushed aside as a prejudice of the past. While George Washington may have been father of the country, no one would expect Elizabeth Warren or Donald Trump to wear this mantle. Indeed, a founding principle of the United States is that personal identity does not determine citizenship. The Constitution ensured that one’s religion would not determine access to the ballot, while subsequent struggles have marked race and sex as irrelevant to suffrage.

In Citizen Bachelors, I explain how marriage was once understood to be a requirement for political participation. In the seventeenth century, laws privileged married men by demanding single men pay higher taxes, be jailed for debt, and face mandatory military service. The paterfamilias was a political role and so he was granted privileges a man without dependents did not receive.

The President’s wedding / [drawn] by T. de Thulstrup.

 In the eighteenth century, this understanding changed. The household head became less important and Enlightenment ideals placed more emphasis on the individual. Meanwhile, courtship and love became popular obsessions. Single men took advantage of these changes and demanded a greater role in society. Since the 1690s, Pennsylvania had collected a heavy poll (head) tax on single men, but denied nearly all of the men who paid it the right to vote because they did not own land. In the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, all men who paid taxes gained suffrage regardless of property requirements, consequently enfranchising thousands of bachelors. Thereafter, marital status was no longer determinative of one’s citizenship in the United States.

The household head became less important and Enlightenment ideals placed more emphasis on the individual.

We might place Senator Booker’s candidacy in this longer history of bachelors and politics. Had Booker lived in New Jersey in 1800, his race would not have barred him from suffrage, but he would have faced a poll tax of three to eight shillings as a single man due to his marital status if he did not own property. Had he fallen subject to the bachelor tax due to his lack of land, he would not have been able to vote, thus forcing him to face taxation without representation in a nation that had fought a revolution to defy that very proposition.

The lack of recognition of a bachelor among the Democratic candidates speaks to how ordinary the political inclusion of unmarried men has become.


John Gilbert McCurdy is Professor of History at Eastern Michigan University where he has taught courses in colonial and Revolutionary America, as well as the gender and sexuality since 2005. He is the author of two books: Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States (Cornell, 2009) and Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution (Cornell, 2019). 

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