“Leaving Their Callings”: Retirement in the Early Republic

Andrea R. Gray

Advisor: Cynthia A. Kierner, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Rosemarie Zagarri, Jane Turner Censer

Online Location, #359
April 22, 2020, 02:00 PM to 04:00 PM


This dissertation examines the cultural concept of retirement as it first developed in the early American republic, concentrating on the 1790s through the 1820s. When George Washington stepped down from the presidency in 1797, he shocked some Americans who expected the celebrated general to continue leading the young nation until his death. Yet his retirement actually fulfilled the republican ideal of public men voluntarily relinquishing power and returning to the status of private citizens. Other elite and middling men in the early republic voluntarily retired as well, and though they generally retired for personal reasons, a virtuous retirement depended in part on the timing of their exit from their career, and the perceived fulfillment of their duty to constituents, business associates, and families both before and after the transition. Beginning with Washington and developing over the next quarter century, this understanding of virtuous retirement, at least for certain types of elite men, became widely accepted and even expected among Americans. Concentrating on the values, attitudes, and perceptions that Americans held about retirement, this study shows how even if retirement was unattainable for most people during this period it was nevertheless an important cultural ideal.

Previous histories begin their analysis of retirement in the late nineteenth century when it became institutionalized, and histories of old age have paid it very little attention. But the economic, political, and social changes of the early republic led to more men seeking professional employment outside of the home, and also to more men holding political office and positions of public trust. This increase in work outside the home in turn resulted in an increase of men who had public lives to retire from. Americans considered a man retired when he left his official or professional position to live as a private citizen without professional or public responsibility. Many retirees still participated in civic life and remained influential in politics, particularly the early ex-presidents, but they understood themselves to be private men, separated from public life by their official retirements. Using age as a category of analysis, and focusing on the meanings and experiences of retirement, this study reveals how retired men’s final years continued to contribute to American culture.

By examining the desire for retirement, the timing of stepping down, the experience of retired life, the efforts to remain useful and protect a legacy, and the example retired men set for their fellow Americans, this study provides a comprehensive understanding of the meaning and experience of retirement in the early republic. Retirement did not relate to the ending of employment and the embracing of leisure alone, but to significant notions of duty, virtue, honor, and usefulness. The retirements of the early presidents and some of their contemporaries offer a different perspective on manhood, character, and values in the early American republic.