In the society of our friends: Two generations of the Hillhouse family, 1770--1840

Date of Completion

January 1996


American Studies|History, United States|Women's Studies




In the context of broader social, political, and cultural changes in New England and the United States, this dissertation examines the public and private lives of two generations of the Hillhouse family of New Haven, Connecticut. The study compares the youthful ideals of a couple who courted and married during the Revolution and those of their five children when they themselves reached young adulthood in the early decades of the nineteenth century.^ In evaluating this Federalist family's reactions to larger social movements, the dissertation examines how the Hillhouses forged ties of affection. Kin and a few chosen others had to uphold certain standards of genteel behavior in order to gain entry into their exclusive society of friends. James Hillhouse's commitment to a particular conception of gentility influenced not only his personal relationships but also his active public career as a state and local civic leader as well as a U.S. Congressman and Senator in the administrations of Washington through Madison. Guided by a distinctive fusion of classical republican ideology and enlightenment Christianity, James and his wife emphasized outward simplicity and the inner refinement of one's soul, manners, and morals in defining genteel respectability. However, some of their children came to reject their ideals; and a new generation of Hillhouses began measuring self-worth and the esteem of friends in terms of current fashion and a display of possessions and wealth. In addition to their different definitions of gentility, the Hillhouses experienced similar intergenerational tension when comparing opinions of religion and the purpose of literature in the early republic.^ The dissertation also seeks to understand how this family's values changed in regard to friendship, marital relationships, and childrearing as it asks what public and private concerns influenced those changes. Conversely it discusses certain beliefs which provided for continuity over the decades. As this study assesses the Hillhouse family's disappointments and accomplishments, it illustrates their questions about the legacy of the Revolution and their temporal and spiritual missions in the early republic. ^