to The History of Private Life
Late in the winter of 1708/9,
Samuel Gerrish, a Boston bookseller, began to court Mary Sewall,
the 18-year old daughter of Puritan magistrate Samuel Sewall.
Judge Sewall was a conscientious father, and like many Puritan
fathers believed that he had a right and duty to take an active
role in his daughter's selection of a spouse. He had heard "various
and uncertain reports" that young Gerrish had previously
courted other women and immediately dashed off a letter to Gerrish's
father demanding "the naked Truth." Only after receiving
a satisfactory reply did Judge Sewall permit the courtship to
continue. In August, after a whirlwind six month courtship, the
couple married, but the marriage was cut tragically short l5 months
later when young Mary died in childbirth.
A hundred twenty-nine years later,
in 1838, another couple began their courtship. Theodore Dwight
Weld, a 39-year old abolitionist, wrote a letter to Angelina Grimke,
the daughter of a wealthy, slaveholding South Carolina family
who had turned against slavery, in which he disclosed "that
for a long time you have had my whole heart." He had "no
expectation and almost no hope that [his] feelings are in any
degree RECIPROCATED BY YOU." Nevertheless, he asked her to
reveal her true feelings.
Angelina replied by acknowledging
her own love for him: "I feel, my Theodore, that we are the
two halves of one whole, a twain one, two bodies animated by one
soul and that the Lord has given us to each other."
Like many early nineteenth century
couples, Theodore and Angelina devoted much of their courtship
to disclosing their personal faults and dissecting their reasons
for marriage. They considered romance and passion childish and
unreliable motives for marriage and instead sought a love that
was more tender and rational. In his love letters, Theodore listed
his flaws and worried that he was not deserving of Angelina's
love. He was a "vile groveling selfish wretch"--reckless,
impatient, careless in appearance, and poorly educated. Angelina
responded by confessing her own faults--her temper, her pride,
and the fact that she had once loved another man--and revealed
her fear that the vast majority of men "believe most seriously
that women were made to gratify their animal appetites, expressly
to minister to their pleasure." Only after Theodore and Angelina
were convinced that they were emotionally ready for "the
most important step of Life," did they finally marry.
Between 1708/9, when Samuel Gerrish
courted Mary Sewall, and 1835, when Theodore Weld courted Angelina
Grimke, the rituals of courtship underwent profound changes. Parental
influence and involvement in the selection of their children's
marriage partner visibly declined. Young women and men were increasingly
free to pick or reject a spouse with little parental interference.
At the same time that courtship grew freer, however, marriage
became an increasingly difficult transition point, particularly
for women, and more and more women elected not to marry at all.
In seventeenth and early eighteenth
century New England, courtship was not simply a personal, private
matter. The law gave parents "the care and power...for the
disposing of their Children in Marriage" and it was expected
that they would take an active role overseeing their child's choice
of a spouse. A father in Puritan New England had a legal right
to determine which men would be allowed to court his daughters
and a legal responsibility to give or withhold his consent from
a child's marriage. A young man who courted a woman without her
father's permission might be sued for inveigling the woman's affections.
Parental involvement in courtship
was expected because marriage was not merely an emotional relationship
between individuals but also a property arrangement among families.
A young man was expected to bring land or some other form of property
to a marriage while a young woman was expected to bring a dowry
worth about half as much.
In most cases, Puritan parents
played little role in the actual selection of a spouse (although
Judge Sewall did initiate the courtship between his son Joseph
and a neighbor named Elizabeth Walley). Instead, they tended to
influence the timing of marriage. Since Puritan children were
expected to bring property to marriage, and Puritans fathers were
permitted wide discretion in when they distributed property to
their children, many sons and daughters remained economically
dependent for years, delaying marriages until a relatively late
Today, love is considered the
only legitimate reason for marriage. Puritan New Englanders, in
sharp contrast, did not regard love as a necessary precondition
for marriage. Indeed, they associated romantic love with immaturity
and impermanence. True love, the Puritans believed, would appear
following marriage. A proper marriage, in their view, was based
not on love and affection, but on rational considerations of property,
compatibility, and religious piety. Thus, it was considered acceptable
for a young man to pursue "a goodly lass with aboundation
of money," so long as he could eventually love his wife-to-be.
By the middle of the eighteenth
century, parental influence over the choice of a spouse had sharply
declined. One indication of a decline in parental control was
a sudden upsurge in the mid-eighteenth century the number of brides
who were pregnant when they got married. In the seventeenth century,
fathers--supported by local churches and courts--exercised close
control over their childrens' sexual behavior and kept sexual
intercourse prior to marriage at extremely low levels. The percentage
of women who bore a first child less than eight-and-a half months
after marriage was below ten percent. By the middle of the eighteenth
century, the figure had shot up to over forty percent.
Another indicator of a decline
in paternal authority was an increase in children's discretion
in deciding whom and when to marry. By the middle of the eighteenth
century, well before the onset of the American Revolution, the
ability of fathers to delay their sons' marriages until their
late twenties had eroded.
Greater freedom in selection of
a spouse was also apparent in a gradual breakdown in a seventeenth-
and early eighteenth-century pattern in which the order of a son's
birth was closely connected to the economic status of his future
spouse. Although most families in early New England did not practice
strict primogeniture - the right of inheritance belonging to the
eldest son - many families did assign older sons a larger share
of resources than younger children. Receiving larger inheritances
themselves, eldest sons tended to marry daughters of wealthier
families. By mid-century, a closed connection between birth order
and a spouse's economic status had gradually declined.
By the middle of the eighteenth
century, other signs of weakening parental control over marriage
were visible. In seventeenth century Plymouth, the brothers and
sisters of one family frequently married the sisters and brothers
of another. After 1760 this pattern gave way to marriages based
on individual choice. In one small Massachusetts town, greater
freedom was evident in the growing ease with which younger daughters
were able to wed before their older sisters.
As parental influence over courtship
declined, a new romantic ideal of love arose. In the years just
before the Revolution, a flood of advice books, philosophical
treaties, and works of fiction helped to popularize revolutionary
new ideas about courtship and marriage. Readers learned that love
was superior to property as a basis for marriage and that marriage
should be based on mutual sympathy, affection, and friendship.
Rather than choosing spouses on economic grounds, young people
were told to select their marriage partner on the more secure
basis of love and compatibility. In a survey of all magazines
published during the 30 years before the Revolution, one issue
out of four contained a reference to romantic love as the proper
basis of marriage; during the next twenty years the number of
references to romantic love tripled.
The heightened emphasis attached
to romantic love can be seen in in the proliferation of new kinds
of love letters. Courtship letters changed by the nineteenth century
from brief notes to longer, more effusive expositions of feelings
and emotions. Seventeenth century Puritans tended to moderate
expression of affection in love letters. A letter from a Westfield,
Connecticut, minister to his sweetheart was not atypical. After
describing his passion for her as "a golden ball of pure
fire," he added that his affection "must be kept within
bounds too. For it must be subordinate to God's Glory."
By the late eighteenth century,
love letters, particularly those written by men, had grown more
expansive and less formal. Instead of addressing their beloved
in highly formalized terms, lovers began to use such terms of
endearment as "dearest" or "my beloved." In
their love letters, couples described feelings of affection that
were deeply romantic. In 1844, Alexander Rice, a study at Union
College in Schnechtady, New York, described the feeling that overcame
him when he first met his fiance, Augusta McKim. "I felt...as
I had never felt in the presence of a lady before and there seemed
to be a kind of [direction] saying to me that I was now meeting
her whom it was appointed should be my special object of affection
Yet even in deeply impassioned
love letters such as this one, writers stressed that their love
was not motivated solely by transient emotions, but by mutuality
of tastes, companionship, trust, and shared interests. Alexander
Rice made this point in typical terms: emotion alone would not
have led him "blindly forward had not I discovered in you
those elements of character and those qualities of mind which
my judgment approved." The kind of love that early nineteenth
century Americans sought was not transient passion, declared Henry
Poor, a young Bangor, Maine, attorney, in a letter to his fiance,
but a higher kind of love, "the kind that seeks its gratification
in mutual sympathy."
The most surprising fact disclosed
in early nineteenth century love letters is that courting couples
were less sexually restrained than the myth of Victorian sexual
values would suggest. Although the colonial custom of bundling--according
to which a courting couple shared a common bed without undressing--had
fallen into disuse by 1800, physical displays of affection remained
an important part of courtship. Seventeen-year old Lester Frank
Ward, who would later become one of the foremost late nineteenth
century American sociologists, recorded in his diary a visit to
his fiance's house: "my beloved and I went down, made a fire,
and sat down to talk and kiss and embrace and bathe in love."
Other surviving love letters also suggest that physical affection
and sexual intimacy played an important role in many courtships.
Mary Butterfield of Racine, Wisconsin, described her feelings
after spending an evening with her fiance in the Racine Hotel:
"I was so glad afterwards when you seemed so sincerely pleased
& happy--so satisfed with me." Still, her feelings were
confused. "...It was a pleasure and yet women so naturally
guard such treasures with jealousy & care, that it seems very
"strange" to yield them even to the 'best loved one'
who has a claim to such kindnesses. So of course it seemed very
'strange' to me."
Yet ironically at the same time
that courting couples were often so open in their expression of
their affection, young women, in particular, more openly disclosed
their fears of marriage. "There can be no medium in the wedded
state," noted one Massachusetts woman. "It must either
be happy or miserable." While men were likely to stress the
pleasures marriage would bring, women, in their correspondence,
expressed fears about marriage. It was a "sad, sour, sober
beverage bringing "some joys but many crosses." In their
courtship letters, women often associated marriage with the loss
of their liberty--often linking marriage with loss of self--and
forebodings about the dangers of childbearing--often omitting
children from their fantasies of an ideal marriage.
Marriage was such an awesome step
that few women in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries
entered into the relationship lightly. After her husband died
in 1767, Mary Fish, a Connecticut widow, remained unmarried for
nine years despite at least three proposals of marriage. She finally
remarried in 1776, but only after her future husband read a document
Mary had composed describing the qualities she wanted in a spouse.
Entitled "Portrait of a Good Husband," the document
stated that he should "gratify" her "reasonable
inclinations," enter into her griefs and participate in her
jobs, should not be jealous or abuse his wife or stepchildren,
and should not mismanage or dissipate her inheritance.
To move from "girlhood"
to housewifery had become a rite of passage so difficult that
many young women experienced a "marriage trauma" before
taking or failing to take the step. Many women wrote that they
"trembled" as their wedding day approached, that their
"spirits were much depressed," and their minds were
"loaded with doubts and fears." One woman, Sarah Williams,
noted that she felt "rather depressed than elevated"
at her impending marriage and Catharine Beecher, a prominent educator,
worried that after her betrothed got over the "novelty"
of marriage he would be "so engrossed in science and study
as to forget I existed."
In colonial New England, marriage
was regarded as a social obligation and an economic necessity,
and virtually all adults married. But by the early nineteenth
century, the number of unmarried women increased to an unprecedented
Marriage became a far more deliberate
act than it had been in the past. Marriage was regarded by young
women in a new way--as a closing off of freedoms enjoyed in girlhood.
Between 1780 and 1820, young women between the ages of l4 and
27 enjoyed unprecedented opportunities to attend school and to
earn a cash income outside of their parents home. Many prospective
brides who did eventually marry hesitated to leave the relative
independence they had enjoyed in girlhood.
At the same time that marriage
become a more difficult transition point for young women, the
rituals surrounding engagement and marriage radically changed.
By the 1840s, a host of elaborate, formal new rituals had arisen,
which helped young women and men maneuver the difficult steps
To signify their intention to
marry, men and women began to give each other engagement rings.
(Over time, it became more common for a man to present a ring
to his fiance). Families began to announce their children's engagement
in letters to friends and family or formal newspaper announcements.
At the same time, marriage ceremonies
increasingly became larger and more formal affairs, attended not
simply by near kin (which had been the custom during the colonial
period) but by a much larger number of family members and friends.
Guests received printed invitations to the ceremony and were,
in turn, expected to send wedding gifts.
It was during the 1840s that many
of the rituals that still characterize wedding ceremonies today
first became widespread, such as the custom that the bride wear
a veil and a white dress and that she be assisted by formally
costumed attendants, that the bridegroom present his bride with
a wedding ring, and that the bride and groom and their guests
eat a white wedding cake.
These rituals were intended to
mark off marriage as an especially beautiful and solemn occasion,
the supreme occurrence of life. The bride was dressed in white
to signify her purity and virtue. At a time when civil marriage
was becoming prevalent on the European continent, it was only
in Britain and America, the twin archetypes of the emerging market
economy, that a sacramental conception of marriage triumphed.