Exploring Bastardy in Early America and Its Impact Today

Depending on who you are and what you were taught from a very young age, each American has their own idea of what Early America was like. However, many of the views that we were taught in elementary school about the Founding Fathers and patriotism are being challenged left and right by historians who are discovering lots of conflicting evidence about the stories being told to the children of America. Obviously, many opinions have changed on the subject of children born out-of-wedlock; however, in the 18th century, it was quite the scandalous topic. Depending on your social status, race, and gender, being caught in such a situation could mean bad news for both the person involved and their child. It was such a crime that the children suffered for it. An anonymous bastard wrote to a local magazine stating, “I had the misfortune to come illegally into the world, and am therefore branded with the name of Bastard: but I assure you, I was by no means an accessory in the fornication which gave me birth; and therefore I think it a hardship that disgrace should be imputable to me, who, in the business alluded to, never violated any law, civil, common, or ecclesiastical.” [1] It was such a burden for this man to just be born, because he was punished for the wrongdoing of parents. This is how much of an offense the crime was. Most often women would be caught; however, there are instances when men also had to pay for the consequences of their actions. The laws at the time forbade several things that were considered morally wrong including fornication, bastardy, and interracial marriage. Many were affected by these societal standards. Historians have discussed bastardy and the bigger conversation of controversial laws that have since been amended or forgotten. The conversation is vast and covers several topics from racial prejudice to gender bias.


[1] A Bastard. “Cursory Remarks on Bastardy.” Universal Asylum, & Columbian Magazine, June 1792. 359.