In this paper, I explore the philosophical and social constructions of the moral infant in American medical and scientific discourse from the 1850s to the 1920s. While historians, sociologists, and literary scholars have written extensively on the history of child-rearing and child health, very little has been done that focuses on the history of infants as moral agents and persons. I investigate conceptualizations of the moral agency and personhood of infants in nineteenth-century American medical texts and child-rearing manuals to disentangle the interweaving of hegemonic religious, scientific, and philosophical conceptions of the infant and infancy during the popularization of a Darwinian approach to child development in the 1860s and the growing mechanization of the child’s body in the early twentieth century. My research aims to historicize and problematize the moral infant whose being and development had increasingly captured the attention of psychologists, physicians, politicians, and parents during a period in which child health and welfare burgeoned as a moral, scientific, and political enterprise in America. My analysis begins with Andrew Combe’s Treatise on the Physiological and Moral Management of Infancy (1854) and ends in the 1920s during which advice for cultivating the “moral” infant is supplanted by advice for rearing the “normal” infant, from religious discourse to a secular, scientific discourse. Tracing the history of the “moral” infant in American medical discourse reveals the moral dimensions of medicine and the interplay between science and religion in the construction of the human person.
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