The 1950s as the Height of Conservative America

Part V: The Home

Connor Kaeb

Our tour through the 1950s community reaches its final stop and penultimate installment as we reach the home. The 1950s was a time in which families were strong, buoyed by a largely monolithic view of marriage. Although the strength of the ‘50s family would be undone in short order by the sexual revolution of the 1960s, its importance and vitality during the decade in question makes it a hallmark of a conservative America.

Although we end our trip at the home, family formed the cornerstone of life in the 1950s. Wayne Drayer, whose book Softer than Velvet, Stronger than Steel has served as our guide, emphasized the dominance of the family in the first chapter of his book, titled “Family Foundations.” During this decade, marriage was a strong institution, recognized to be important to the health of its members and of society in general. Feminist author Stephanie Coontz explains the idea of marriage in the 1950s in her book Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage:

The long decade of the 1950s…was a unique moment in the history of marriage. Never before had so many people shared the experience of courting their own mates, getting married at will, and setting up their own households. Never had married couples been so independent of extended family ties and community groups. And never before had so many people agreed that only one kind of family was “normal.”

Despite Coontz’s argument, however, marriage in the 1950s was not particularly unique. In fact, it echoed the vision of marriage held by the American Founders. The Founders believed that marriage was rooted in natural rights because of its relationship to happiness, the pursuit of which Thomas Jefferson included as an unalienable right in the Declaration of Independence. Despite its basis in natural individual happiness, the family served more importantly as an institution that was intrinsically tied to the social compact. Thomas West, in his book The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom, quotes Founding Father John Witherspoon and provides further context on the Founders’ view of marriage as connected to the social compact:

Witherspoon makes two claims: that marriage is “part of natural law” and that it “holds a place of the first importance in the social compact.” In his Lectures on Moral Philosophy, Witherspoon spells out the reasoning, “drawn from the public good,” that would support these claims: “Human creatures at their birth are in a state weaker and more helpless than any other animals. They also arrive much more slowly at maturity and need by far the most assistance and cultivation. Therefore a particular union of the parents is absolutely necessary, and that upon such powerful principles as will secure their common care….Marriage is a relation expressly founded upon this necessity.” From the perspective of the social compact, the main purpose of the “union of the parents” is the “common care” of the children.

The Founders therefore supported an institution of marriage that accomplished this goal, and this sort of institution could be seen in the 1950s as well. 

The centrality of the institution of the family has been made clearer with its decline in the decades since. Charles Murray provides a great visualization of this decline in his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray examines white “prime-age” adults (ages 30-49), and he divides his statistics into a group he refers to as “Belmont,” or those with college degrees, and “Fishtown,” or those with a high school diploma or less. In 1960, the marriage rate in “Belmont” was 94 percent and in “Fishtown” it stood at 84 percent. By 2010, however, the marriage rate in “Belmont” had declined to 83 percent while that of “Fishtown” cratered to a staggering 48 percent. In 1960, the divorce rates for both groups stood below 5 percent. By 2010, however, it had risen to approximately 33 percent of prime age adults in “Fishtown,” while in “Belmont” the divorce rate still hovered around 5 percent. In 1960, the two groups accounted for very few children living with a single, divorced, or separated parent, but by 2010, 22 percent of “Fishtown” children lived in a broken household, compared to only 3 percent of “Belmont” children. On top of the rise in divorces, the nonmarital birth rate also spiked during this time frame.

Lest this be simply discounted as ignoring large racial swaths of the American population, Murray examined the statistics for all prime age adults, regardless of race. Now while the marriage rate has only declined from approximately 95% in 1960 to approximately 85% in 2010 for “Belmont,” “Fishtown” has declined from slightly less than 85% in 1960 to less than 50% in 2010. Murray explains the importance of this, saying:

No matter what the outcome being examined—the quality of mother-infant relationship, externalizing behavior in childhood (aggression, delinquency, and hyperactivity), delinquency in adolescence, criminality as adults, illness and injury in childhood, early mortality, sexual decision-making in adolescence, school problems and dropping out, emotional health, or any other measure of how well or poorly children do in life—the family structure that produces the best outcome for children, on average, are two biological parents who remain married.

The fact that there was such a divide based on education level suggests that when the sexual revolution began in the 1960s, those with less education, less job prospects, and less ability to plan ahead fueled a collapse in marriage encouraged by the propaganda of the well-educated, who remained true to the institutions they attacked.

At the Founding and again during the 1950s, the family was regarded as an important institution for precisely the reasons Murray suggests. Drayer’s book, beginning with “Family Foundations,” follows a teen boy struggling with the death of his mother, in this case a child struggling in a single-parent home through no one’s fault at all. The trends suggest that now the nation as a whole is struggling from a lack of family foundations, and the strength of those foundations in the 1950s provide another point in which the decade was the height of conservative America.

About the Author

Connor Kaeb is the Managing Editor of American Discourse.

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