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I understand the phrase "I'm free, white, and twenty-one" was used in several films of the 1930's, generally to mean "I can do what I want and no one can stop me" and that the phrase was common in that era, at least in the some parts of the U.S.

Does anyone have information about when and how that idiom first came into use?

Does anyone have references to it being used before 1930?

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"Free" in this context refers to being free of any romantic or matrimonial commitment. – user65367 Feb 11 '14 at 4:48
up vote 5 down vote accepted

The earliest citation I can find is Marion Harland's Alone (1856), but I don't suppose it's an "origin".

Free, white, and twenty-one" sang Emma, cheerily. "Twenty-one! In four years, I shall be a spinster of a quarter of a century!"

The fact that it was well-established long before OP's 1930s movies is attested by this sentence in the Transactions of the Annual Meeting from the South Carolina Bar Association, 1886

And to-day, “free white and twenty-one,” that slang phrase, is no longer broad enough to include the voters in this country.

There were still black slaves in some states in the mid 1800s, so obviously being free and white was a meaningful part of "I can do what I want and no one can stop me". But unless it refers to the "freedom" to vote, I don't know what the significance of reaching 21 would have been at the time.

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Timely topic, since today is our nation's holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King who fought for equality long after people of color were no longer slaves. Anyway, I did a Google search on Legal precedents + "free, white" - it's amazing how many laws were very specific on what constituted "free" and "white". – Kristina Lopez Jan 21 '13 at 22:59
The age of 21 was when you had reached 'majority' or legal control of yourself (your parents couldn't force you to do anything). What I wonder is why free -and- white since presumably there weren't many white slaves. – Mitch Jan 21 '13 at 22:59
@Mitch: I'm pretty sure you could get married without parental consent at 18 in the US in 1850 (but there was probably variation across different states). I'd have thought the right to drink strong liquor at 21 probably didn't surface until after prohibition, and obviously the right to buy multiple tickets for R-rated movies couldn't have meant anything then. All I can see is voting. – FumbleFingers Jan 21 '13 at 23:10
@FumbleFingers: see age of majority. Commonly it is now 18, but used to be 21. Not all adult issues are centered on alcohol consumption. – Mitch Jan 21 '13 at 23:26
@Mitch: It was 21 a few decades ago, but I doubt that goes back centuries. I see here that in 1850 the Senate and Assembly of the State of California passed a law including the words Every male Indian shall be deemed to have attained his majority at eighteen, and the female at fifteen years. It seems unlikely they'd have given 18-year-old Indian males more rights than 20-year-old white boys. – FumbleFingers Jan 21 '13 at 23:36

There was a time, sadly, when not being free, white, and 21 was a significant legal disability. Even by the 1930's, fortunately, that phrase was mostly a joke.

My father used to use the expression to indicate that a woman was a suitable romantic candidate: "She's free, white, and 21."

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