"The Cornerstone of a Copious Work": Love and Power in Eighteenth-Century Courtship

Article excerpt

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. …