Early Adoption Practices: Child Slavery in Disguise?

By | July 5, 2019

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Aileen Quinn and Carol Burnett in Annie (1982). Source: (mentalfloss.com)

Today, adoption is considered a blessing. A couple who wants a child but can’t conceive is united with a child in need of parents in what is ideally the perfect solution to both problems. However, adoptions in history were not always so well-intentioned or mutually beneficial.

Adoptions of ancient times were often designed for the sole benefit of the adults. In ancient Rome, adoptions often occurred when a wealthy family was in need of an heir. This was the case with several Roman emperors such as Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, who were both adopted. But not all orphans were lucky enough to become heirs. Many adoptive parents were not looking for a child to love and raise as their own but were instead looking for free labor. For centuries, families would adopt children because they needed extra help tending the farm or working in the family business.

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Moses is adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter in The Ten Commandments (1956). Source: (YouTube.com)

The practice of adopting male heirs declined during the Middle Ages due to greater importance placed on bloodlines. Around this time, the Catholic Church began to oversee the adoption process in the interests of the children, setting standards for their treatment. The settlement of the future United States led to an increase in orphans due to war, poverty, disease, and other tragedies. During that time, most adoptions were informal with a relative taking in the orphaned child. This continued to be the norm until the 1850s.