Digital History>Topics>Courtship

Courtship in Early America

Digital History TOPIC ID 71

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 age.

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 and love.’

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 fiancé, 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 fiancé’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 fiancé in the Racine Hotel: "’I was so glad afterwards when you seemed so sincerely pleased & happy - so satisfied 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 11 percent.

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 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 toward marriage.

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 fiancé). 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.

Copyright Digital History 2014