"The Cornerstone of a Copious Work": Love and Power in Eighteenth-Century Courtship
Eustace, Nicole, Journal of Social History
When Henry Drinker set sail from Philadelphia to attend to business in England in the winter of 1760, he left unresolved negotiations of a most important and delicate kind. Until the moment he was called away by demands of trade, Henry Drinker, staunch Quaker and promising merchant, had found his time consumed by the effort to convince a certain young woman named Betsy Sandwith to become his wife. Forced to continue his courtship by correspondence, he sent frequent letters home. Completing one such missive, Henry found that his love nearly overflowed his letter and wrote, when sealing it, "I find that without a Cover there is some danger of losing a word by Wax or Wafer which word may perhaps be as a Corner Stone to my Love-Fabrick, and by losing it Sap the foundation ... of a copious work." We might well expect that these flirtatious lines about his "love-fabric" were meant for the eyes of his intended, Betsy. But in actuality, this epistle, which to the modern reader looks very much like a love letter, was sent not to Betsy, but to her sister Mary instead. This poses an intriguing question: why would Henry attempt to lay the corner-stone of his love for one sister by writing a letter to the other? Strange as this procedure may seem, it was nothing out of the ordinary in the eighteenth century. In fact, the phenomenon of the public love letter was quite common. (1)
Just two years earlier, in the autumn of 1758, another young man named William Franklin had followed a remarkably similar procedure. Like Henry, his professional ambitions called him to England before his courtship considerations could be brought to closure. And so William, son of the famous Benjamin and aspirant to colonial office, also relied on correspondence in the long-distance pursuit of his marriage prospects. From his lodgings in London he scrawled off a closely written eight-page letter so personal, it initially appears as if the "dear Madam" it was addressed to could be none other than Elizabeth Graeme, the young lady he was courting. William spoke to her of his hope that overseas communications could "raise or keep alive some soft emotions in my favor." But in actuality, the "Madam" in question was not William's Elizabeth but a Madam Abercrombie, a middle-aged married woman who was a mutual friend of both. Madam Abercrombie herself saw nothing unusual in William's conduct; in fact she in turn sent a letter to Elizabeth's mother explaining, "this morning I received a very long Epistle from Mr. Franklin and as the whole purport of it is relative to Dear Miss Graeme wrote with a design to be Communicated I ... desire if agreeable to See you here as the contents will remain in Secret til I have your Orders and Opinion on the sentiments." The stories of these courting couples provide a fascinating opportunity to examine the public expression and social meanings of what modern readers might believe to be among the most private of emotions: romantic love. (2)
The prevalence of public love-letters in the eighteenth century sets that era apart as a critical period for understanding the origins of modern romantic love. Historians like Daniel Blake Smith have identified this century as a key point of transition in two areas of courtship decisions: the relative influence of parents vs. courting couples on marriage choices and the relative weight given to love vs. economic and social considerations. In the seventeenth century, public involvement in courtships was commonplace and parents were expected to exercise a decisive influence on their children's marriage choices. Though love did figure as one important aspect of early colonial marriages, economic and social considerations were equally acknowledged. A rhetoric of idealized romantic love had not yet taken hold. By the nineteenth century, on the other hand, the pull of romantic love prevailed over all other factors. Social and economic considerations in marriage choices, if mentioned at all, were simply discouraged. Courtships became intensely private matters, idealized as a meeting of souls which parents and community members were not expected to intrude on. Eighteenth-century courtship shared aspects of both earlier and later systems. An elaborate rhetoric of romance had begun to develop, yet the influence of community members still lingered. The phenomenon of the public love-letter indicates that courtship was romanticized before it was privatized. (3)
This article aims to problematize the meaning and development of romantic views of courtship as they emerged in the eighteenth century. Without discrediting declarations of love as inauthentic or unimportant, I wish to argue that marriage continued to have a very significant impact on social roles and community standing, even after the introduction of romantic rhetoric. Romantic love, as it developed in the nineteenth century, assumed a total split between private life and public status. Historian Karen Lystra has gone so far as to argue that romantic love was an important element in the development of American individualism. But in the eighteenth century, older models of the self as communal and constructed through social relations continued to exist alongside new models of the self as individual and autonomous. So becoming a husband or wife changed social roles as much as personal relationships. (4)
The open assertions of love and devotion that developed in eighteenth-century courtships were not transparent, distinct from negotiations of economic and social status, or devoid of connotations of power. On the contrary, declarations of sentiment were inseparable from assertions of status; love and power were intimately connected. Analyzing who expressed what emotions and to whom during courtship reveals much about the status calculations and power negotiations that underlay marriage decisions. As striking as the prevalence of men's public expressions of love at this time is the relative absence of any reciprocal declarations on the part of the women these suitors addressed. Among the elite of eighteenth-century Philadelphia, those people with the learning and the leisure to leave letters and diaries behind, many love letters from young men to young women and their families survive, while hardly any exist from young women to the men who courted them. If the expression or suppression of emotion reflects the terms of social interactions, then the fact that women seldom voiced their love matters as much as the fact that men often made public declarations of theirs (5)
While many historians have noted discrepancies in men's and women's declarations of love--Rothman finds that by the nineteenth century both expressed love but men's remarks remained much more elaborate--they have seldom linked such differences to issues of gendered power. Rothman, for example, says simply that "women's role was to embody rather than articulate the sentimental ideal." But a review of the complete correspondence of courting couples reveals that eighteenth-century women easily and eagerly articulated their love for their female friends, remaining reticent only when it came to addressing their suitors. For example, as a girl, Betsy Sandwith maintained a prolific correspondence with her close confident and frequent companion Eliza Moode. Eliza urged Betsy to write to her frequently, remarking in one letter, "if you are as fond of me as I am of you, you could never lack for something or other to write to me. It is true that we see one another very often, But when two people like each other entirely There is even a pleasure in Thinking of each other." And Elizabeth Graeme, who would one day become known throughout Philadelphia literary circles for her sophisticated poems, devoted one of her first literary attempts to discussing affection between female friends. In this poem, titled "On the Preference of Friendship to Love," she declared:
Friendships Steady Flame as far; Out shines that transient Blaze As Mid Day suns a glimmering star.
Here Elizabeth positively rejected romantic love in favor of enduring friendship. (6)
In yet another example, a young woman named Peggy Emlen demanded of her close friend and cousin Sally Logan how some people could "say that there can't be friendships between girls." She continued, "if tis not true love and friendship, what is it I feel for thee? Nothing less I am sure." This young woman asserted that far from being the exclusive purview of men, love and friendship could exist in a wholly female world. The prevalence of loving letters between friends matters because it makes clear the singularity of the fact that no similar letters have survived from young women to their suitors. We can't solve the mystery of the lack of women's love-letters simply by saying that women were generally less expressive than men. (7)
On the other hand, it would be equally inaccurate to claim that young women had no interest in the possibility of romantic love. Devotion to same-sex friendships did not prevent young people from discussing courtship. Young people particularly liked writing each other secret coded letters on the subject. As a girl, Betsy would correspond about courtship only in French and under the code-name Babette. Her friend Ann Swett, code-name Nanette, captured the essence of courtship views among the young when, at age 19, she declared of one prospective suitor, "my dear you know it would be almost the same thing if he's your lover or mine because one or the other will serve for our discussion and that is the main thing mon petit ..." For young women not yet in their twenties, like Babette and Nanette, flirtation itself was enjoyed as a kind of carefree game, so long as serious courtships remained only a remote possibility (8)
Courtship code-names became all the rage among young people in eighteenth-century Philadelphia and reflected the kind of emphasis on privacy Lystra has documented for a later period. One group of Quaker young people had an incredibly elaborate system of code-names worked out; Peggy Emlen wrote to Sally Logan about boys called "amiable Harry Mandeville" and "good-natured Beauchamp," about girls called "Maria" and "Matilda" and about a couple dubbed "Rinaldo and Flavilla" all in a single letter. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Graeme, William Franklin, and other members of their circle played similar games, frequently employing literary congnomens in their letters and writing. Elizabeth signed her poems Laura, while William wrote under the name of Damon. And young men's discussions of courtship were equally playful and secretive among themselves. One young man, who signed himself only with the code-name "Nemo," wrote frequent letters to his fifteen-year-old friend Thomas Bradford who was away at college. A letter he sent Thomas describing his flirtation with a young woman has survived completely intact--except for the fact that the young woman's name had been blacked out of the letter, presumably to preserve secrecy. Code-names seemed designed to prevent members of the opposite sex from knowing just who was interested in whom; and young men seemed as eager as young women to adopt them. This presents another problem for understanding the prevalence of men's public love-letters; in the early phases of courtship young men and women alike emphasized the importance of privacy. (9)
Given the very different meanings marriage held for men and women, this divergence is intriguing but not surprising. To fully understand the connections between love and status, we need to be aware of the importance of youth as a social category. Nothing marked the entrance to adulthood in the eighteenth century like the ceremony of marriage, which made young women into wives and young men into household masters. Married men headed households and controlled the labor and property of all household members. Young never married men, on the other hand, were bound first by law and then by custom to live and work in the households of other men, be they fathers or masters. To take a wife then was to announce a new social standing. For young men, marriage loomed as a major hurdle between youth and manhood. For young women too, courtship was a major rite of passage which marked the threshold of their adult lives. Much as young men and women might have desired to come to courtship decisions as unfettered individuals, they could not do so in an age in which so-called private decisions had such a profound impact on community status. (10)
Men who remained bachelors became subject to a brand of popular ridicule simply never directed at those who were family masters. Take for example this jibe delivered by a man named Thomas Lightfoot to his opponent in a business dispute. Lightfoot decreed, "I wish every person with whom I have to do were fully endowed with that noble principle of doing unto all men as they would willingly be done by, but I know old Bachelors are apt to grow both covetous and peevish, both which I wish thou may steer clear of." Agreement seemed almost universal that remaining single was a most unattractive option for men. Thus when Samuel Fisher sent his brother Thomas greetings from mutual friends he had met while traveling he told him, "the next question after inquiring ab[ou]t thy health [is] 'Is he married.' 'No.' 'The lazy chap. What is he after, he will soon be an old Batchler.'" To waste one's chances and risk becoming an "old bachelor" was to lay oneself open to public scorn and private disappointment. So young men who aimed to be masters soon shed their casual stance and began to consider marriage in earnest. (11)
They became absorbed by what one man called "the power of matrimonial thoughts." Most looked forward to marriage and noted the satisfaction of those who had already managed to marry. Thus one young man reported to his friend and business partner,
I received a letter some time since from Our mutual Friend Robert Pleasants, who informs me that he & his dear Polly had Accomplished their marriage. He Seems to think himself happily out of the road of Old Batchelders, and in order to make the present more pleasant and Easie, he has desired us to purchase a Neat Two horse Chaise, And send him [it] by the first Opportunity.
Recurrent references to "old batchelders," a male counterpart to "old maid" and a term which has no modern equivalent, indicate the degree to which eighteenth-century men experienced particular anxiety in the matter of marriage. Almost entirely missing from eighteenth-century courtship discussions was the nineteenth-century stereotype of the ever-aging single woman eager to snare a man. (12)
Writing home to his friend Joseph Shippen from abroad, John Morgan was also quite persistent in his praise of marriage. In one 1761 letter he wrote, "I long to hear you are well settled, agreeable to your liking." He was even more pointed three years later when his friend had still not married saying, "I purpose sailing by the first vessel for Philada to join my Friends and settle like an honest Citizen in the place of my Birth. Tis high time to hear you have led the way. Are you afraid of Matrimony or have the refined elegencies of European Ladies impaired your relish for the exquisitely soft and native Charms of our fair Americans [?]" There were subtle community pressures on men to marry, to become heads of households and full members of their communities--pressures exerted by young men themselves as much as by anyone else. (13)
Morgan's use of the term "well-settled" highlights the tight links that existed between marriage and men's quest to become household masters. Though often used to indicate marriage, settling could as easily refer to establishing a home or securing employment. That these concerns could be combined in one fraught term shows how closely connected marital status and social status remained. Thus one man told his friend, "I am glad thee art so well settled in business & I hope is possessed of a sweet dear agreeable consort," while another congratulated a friend whose daughter had recently married by saying "I take notice of the circumstances of your family ... and the settlement of Betty, and hope all will come on and continue to your comfort." And when Henry told Betsy's sister Mary that he expected his love-letter to lay the foundation of a copious work, he drew explicitly on the images of home-building implicit in references to marriage as settlement. (14)
In practice, many young men would not move into houses of their own until the time of their marriage, so that getting married and setting up house were often literally synchronous as well as theoretically synonymous. Reporting on a friend's marriage one man noted, …
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Publication information: Article title: "The Cornerstone of a Copious Work": Love and Power in Eighteenth-Century Courtship. Contributors: Eustace, Nicole - Author. Journal title: Journal of Social History. Volume: 34. Issue: 3 Publication date: Spring 2001. Page number: 517+. © 2009 Journal of Social History. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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