Joseph Burnays commits to pay child support to Mary Buxton
Reading, MA: 8 December 1788. Autograph document signed by Joseph Burnays and his witnesses William Brown and Elizabeth Brown, on the recto of one sheet measuring 270 x 185mm. In overall Near Fine condition, with some minor chipping to edges near foldlines and two small snags with paper loss affecting several words (content remaining legible). A scarce survivor documenting the child welfare and child support policies common in the New Republic, where sexual activity and pregnancy outside of marriage were deemed social and economic rather than moral issues.
With the support of a number of men in his community, Joseph Burnays declares in writing before his witnesses that "I bind my self my Heirs Executors administrators and Assigns firmly by these presents sealed with my seal...that whereas Mary Buxton of Reading single wooman is suspected and hath Declared her self to be with Child and is likely to become chargeable to this said Town of Reading, therefore the said Joseph Burnays or his Heirs or assigns shll fully support the said Mary Buxton...with the Child she is now pregnant with and if said Child shall live support it...in so ample a manner that the Town of Reading shall be at no charge nor cost." Notably, an area stipulating an end to the child support (up to the child's eighth year) is struck out and replaced with the present text providing full support.
According to marriage documents from the Township, Mary Buxton (1759-1795) was married in 1783 but appears to have been widowed by the time of this pregnancy given her descriptor as "single." It is unclear whether she had any previous children; but in the case of this pregnancy, the biological father appears to have been Joseph Burnays. Such an occurrence would not have been rare or shocking at the time, given in the colonies and in the new republic, "the high rate of pregnancies among unmarried women -- and the acceptance of sex before marriage and pregnancy out of wedlock"; after all, of "babies born to first-time mothers between 1785 and 1797, nearly 40 percent were conceived by single women" (The Washington Post). Despite today's perceptions of the past having fully conservative approaches to sexuality, "for these communities, unmarried pregnancy was less a moral issue than a practical one of arranging support for the child" (The Washington Post). "There is no evidence even in rural communities that women who bore children out of wedlock were either ruined or abandoned. A fundamental tenet was that fathers as well as mothers were responsible for children" (Ulrich). This was in large part because "sexual activity was connected with a comprehensive transition into adulthood, to good citenship and economic productivity," requiring that social and legal systems include "an acceptance of female sexuality" as well as holding "men responsible for their behavior" (Ulrich).
Further research could be done into the particulars of this case -- including whether either Burnays or Buxton had other children, Burnays' marital status, whether the child survived, and whether the pair eventually married. Additional projects include but are not limited to how this region approached issues of marriage, sexuality and parenthood before and after the revolution, how it compared to other localities, and the extent to which it has laid the groundwork for current and future approaches to family welfare. (Item #5438)