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Kids, Marriage, and the American Way

Revisiting Allan C. Carlson’s The “American Way”: Family and Community in the Shaping of the American Identity two decades later.


“I do not wish to see this country a country of selfish prosperity where those who enjoy the material prosperity think only of the selfish gratification of their own desires, and are content to import from abroad not only their art, not only their literature, but even their babies.” One might think this passage comes from a recent speech by pro-natalist Republican senators, such as Marco Rubio or Josh Hawley. But it was Theodore Roosevelt, in 1911.

Roosevelt was deeply concerned about American families. The nation’s birth rate had fallen by over 30 percent between 1880 and 1920; the number of divorced Americans had risen threefold between 1890 and 1910. Because of this, the topic of birth control became for Roosevelt “the most serious of all problems, for it lies at the root of, and indeed itself is, national life.” He condemned the practice of “willful sterility" in marriage and called birth control “the capital sin” against civilization. He labeled abortion “pre-natal infanticide.” None of this, unsurprisingly, appears on T.R.’s Wikipedia page.


I discovered Roosevelt’s pro-natalism in another source: The “American Way”: Family and Community in the Shaping of the American Identity, by Allan C. Carlson. This year marks twenty years since the publication of the book, which serves not only as a reminder of how long America has been challenged by dramatically fluctuating family demographics, but as an impressively prescient socio-political analysis. Indeed, Carlson’s work foreshadowed contemporary political analysts such as Oren Cass—author of The Once and Future Worker—who also advocate the need for aggressive pro-family policies.

Roosevelt’s fears about the American family arose from similar concerns we face today. If men and women were not willing to have large families to whom they could bequeath American civilization and ensure the next generation of citizens, the nation would require a constant flow of immigrants from elsewhere. “If you do not believe in your own stock enough to wish to see the stock kept up, then you are not good Americans, you are not patriots,” he warned an audience of liberal Christian theologians in 1911. “The nineteenth century saw a prodigious growth of the English-speaking, relative to the Spanish speaking, population… The end of the twentieth century will see this completely reversed,” he predicted.

Because of these concerns, Roosevelt came to endorse a variety of pro-family policies. He urged a “far heavier share of taxation” for unmarried men. He argued that income tax and inheritance tax rates “should be immensely heavier on the childless and on families with one or two children, while there should be an equally heavy discrimination in reverse, in favor of families with over three children.” He suggested strong tax exemptions for children. By the 1940s, federal tax policy had come to reflect Roosevelt’s ideas about generous child tax exemptions, and state and local government wage policies rewarded families with children.

Another surprising source of pro-family wisdom came from ethnic German immigrants. In 1900, German-Americans were the most likely of all immigrant groups to become naturalized, with over 90 percent of German-born persons applying for citizenship. By 1910, 26 percent of German-born Americans were homeowners, compared to only 5 percent of native-born.

Many of these German-Americans were Catholic, and were deeply influenced by Catholic teaching (e.g. Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum) at the turn of the century that argued for labor rights, such as a family wage that would enable a working father to support his family. German-Americans were also strong supporters of the early-twentieth-century maternalism movement, which called for a living wage and aimed to improve conditions at home for mothers and their children. The movement’s greatest success was the 1921 Sheppard-Towner Act, which provided funds for state-level programs for prenatal child-health clinics, visiting nurses for pregnant and new mothers, and instruction of mothers in maternal and infant hygiene. Within seven years, the nation’s infant mortality rate had dropped seven points.


Theodore’s fifth cousin and nephew-in-law Franklin Delano Roosevelt continued his pro-family policies. FDR’s New Deal, whatever its weaknesses, included many explicitly pro-family programs. National Recovery Administration codes aimed at “guarantee[ing] living wages,” substantially raised real income, and NRA relief projects only hired men. The Subsistence Homestead Program in turn attempted to deindustrialize and decentralize American life by financing more Americans going into subsistence farming. Other programs, such as the Federal Emergency Relief Act and the Works Progress Administration, also prioritized helping male over female workers. The maternalists, Carlson argued, “created the policy conditions that would undergird” the subsequent marriage and baby booms of the 1940s to 1960s.

By 1960, not only had marriage and birth rates risen, but the average age of persons entering their first marriages had reached historic lows: age 20 for women, 22 for men. “From the late 1940s into the early 1960s, most Americans came to share a common view of what they wanted for themselves, their families, and their country… a stable family life, home ownership, a rising standard of living, a good education for one’s children, position in the community,” Carlson wrote. 

Yet that same decade, the federal government began to discourage that old, very effective model in favor of Malthusianism. Lyndon Johnson in 1965 convened a White House Conference that included a panel on concerns regarding overpopulation. In 1968, an LBJ-appointed presidential committee pressed for increased government efforts in population control. Richard Nixon the following year called on Americans to confront “the population crisis.” Large families and population growth, championed only a decade earlier, “had become virtual social pathologies and the targets of state activism,” Carlson observed. The American fertility rate plummeted, while divorces skyrocketed. The most vocal family theorists of the late ’60s and then ’70s rejected the idea that there should be a unifying set of social standards governing society.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act decreed discrimination in employment on the basis of “sex” to be a federal crime, and LBJ’s Equal Employment Opportunities Commission resulted in rising female wages, while male breadwinners working full time suffered a 28 percent decline in real wages between 1970 and 1990. In 1975, the Supreme Court struck down the restriction of survivors’ benefits under Social Security to only widowed mothers, communicating that delineations between male and female wages would no longer be legally tolerated. And as the economic character of men and women became more alike, the financial advantage of the joint marriage household evaporated, provoking a decline in the overall marriage rate.

Today, of course, to suggest that families (and society writ large) benefit from having a single male breadwinner is to risk being labeled a bigot, and, if uttered in one’s workplace, could cause far worse professional consequences. When my wife—a stay-at-home, home-schooling mother of five—meets female professionals, they often presume that she of course would prefer to enter the workforce and will do so once our children are older. In 1999, a social scientist like John McElroy felt comfortable identifying "everyone must work" as a "primary belief" of the American people. A recent Washington Post article even complained that women are underrepresented in the military’s special operations forces. Every professional barrier to women must come down!

Not that this societal shift has necessarily benefited us, as much social science demonstrates. Women, pace all these supposed gains, are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression. Despite their impressive entry into the highest echelons of corporate and government authority, women’s happiness has been in decline since the 1970s (I wonder if there’s a correlation?). For years, men have been the minority at universities, and are attending college at record low levels. One of the reasons for the decrease in the gender pay gap is because men are making so much less money. Even Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren two decades ago identified this trend, writing a book about middle-class families financial struggles.

Carlson ended his book with a number of recommendations. He advocated “an affirmation of the family as the natural and irreplaceable human community.” He argued that policies should recognize that men and women, though equal in political and property rights, are different in reproductive, economic, and social functions, and that those differences “must be accommodated in policy and law.” He claimed that home-schooling is “the most practical and successful” model of decentralization. He suggested policies should encourage a “child-rich family,” and that communities that “nurture and sustain families” must be protected from political interference and economic exploitation.

Such proposals remain controversial. Even many on the right regularly message that success must be measured through the prism of professional achievement. Yet the idea that our policies must prioritize and protect the interest of families—and particularly single-income families—is gaining traction. Oren Cass at American Compass has argued in favor of a “per-child family benefit called the Family Income Supplemental Credit.” Chris Buskirk of American Greatness, in his recent book American and the Art of the Possible, has urged “Economic support to make it easier to raise children,” such as subsidies to parents based on the number of their children.

In other words, Carlson was ahead of his time. Or, from a different angle, he is a man of a different time, that of our two Roosevelt presidents, who, through representing different parties (and perhaps even different political ideologies) recognized that aggressive state action taken to protect and encourage families was required to perpetuate our republic.


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