Marry Me?

Modern marriage owes its structure to an historic form. Equal parts love, practicality, and business, today’s unions share more than you’d think with their colonial counterparts.

Learn more: Not All Wives


Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter.  Today we’re welcoming Lindsay Keiter, who is an associate historian at The Digital History Center. Lindsay’s here today to talk with us about marriage in the Colonial period and some of the surprising realizations about it, and some of the things that are actually similar to what we see today. So Lindsay, thank you for being her with us this morning.

Lindsay Keiter: Thank you for having me.

Harmony: Well what is your interest in colonial marriage? How did you come to sort of specialize in this area?

Lindsay: I started looking at the idea of companionate marriage, the idea that in the mid to late 18th century people start saying, “Well shouldn’t get married just for money. You should get married because you have feelings toward the other person. You should be compatible. You should have affection towards each other.” But the sort of legal framework of marriage hasn’t really changed very much. 

So I kind of came at it from this point of, well people are changing what they’re say, but how is what they’re doing changing? So the bigger project overall looks at marriage from about 1750 to 1860, and I focus especially on the economic functions of marriage.

Harmony: So talk to us about some of those economic functions. What happens when you’re uniting these two parties?

Lindsay: Marriage, legally, is sort of a framework for bringing resources together in families. So it sort of regulates the movement of property between the generations. And marriage is pretty much the biggest disbursement, the biggest movement of property you’re going to have from parents to children until the parents die. So it’s really important for families in terms of planning their resources, and it’s really important when your children are looking to get married.

So especially if you have daughters who are going to be legally, economically dependent on their husbands that they make decisions that are sound, so that they marry men that can support them, because you’re not going to have unlimited resources to keep directing toward them after they get married.

Harmony: So I can see the conflict you set up between trying to marry for love, but then you have a much heavier burden of marrying for economic security and sort of securing the family as well. So what do you really happening in this trade off between marrying for affection and companionability and actually making this economic merger?

Lindsay: So there’s definitely a certain amount of conflict, especially between generations where children are like “Oh well, you know he doesn’t have that much money right now,” or “I know she doesn’t have a very large dowry,” but this is how I feel. And parents are really trying to be hands-off, so a lot of what they’re doing is behind the scenes. They’re trying to make sure their children sort of only associate with the right kind of people. They are trying to influence them in other ways. They might sort of withhold the money they’re going to give them at marriage if they don’t make a decision that they approve of.

But for the most part, I think parents want their children to be happy, so they are trying to make arrangements to facilitate that. They will in some instances put their foot down if they know it’s a bad decision. Or if they just can’t support it, they’ll say, “Well, you can marry whoever you want. I can’t stop you, but I don’t have to give you anything.”
So there are instances where parents really are trying to manipulate children as they’re making their decisions, but a lot of it is trying to frame things so that they only associate with people in the right circles. Things like cousin marriage, actually which we tend to think of as very pre-modern, emerge more in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and it’s a really good strategy for knowing who your kids are going to marry for re-pooling resources. It’s also easy to meet your cousin. You know if your parents have a dozen siblings between them, and you have a dozen siblings, you could have 50, 60, 70, 100 cousins. So you have a pretty big pool of people to choose from.

Harmony: You’ve alluded to the fact that men sort of hold all the power in a marriage. What happens to women when they get married?

Lindsay: So legally there’s a common law construction called “coverture.” So the idea is that women are legally and economically absorbed by their husbands when they get married. Their husbands kind of gain these extra rights and privileges to represent the wife. So the wife can’t make contracts, she can’t make lawsuits. She can’t really act in her own name.

There are some exceptions, particularly in places like Virginia. There is what’s called the “Chancery System.” It operates on this idea of equity or fairness, so women can create what are called marriage settlements. They’re basically 18th century and earlier pre-nups. So they can set aside property that a woman’s guardian, often a brother or her father, makes decisions about that her husband can’t access. But that’s relatively uncommon, so that’s really very elite people who are kind of doing this.

For most women, once they get married, they’re going to continue to operate, but it’s on their husband’s behalf. When they go shopping, it’s on their husband’s account and things like that. So their husband is responsible for their debts. Any thing they buy, their husband is responsible for, but they can’t legally represent themselves.

Harmony: This is where I have to stop myself, and think. It sounds very dark to me now from our perspective today, but this would have been the norm then. There would have been no expectation of it working any differently. Was it as oppressive for women as it sounds to my ears now?

Lindsay: Probably not, in a lot of instances. You’re still going to be able to go out and buy in the market, work on credit and things like that. If you need to file a lawsuit, usually your husband can do it with you. If there’s some sort of conflict, there is another loophole where you can get another man called your “next friend” to represent you in court. So there are loopholes. And for most women who probably don’t have huge amounts of money, who aren’t necessarily engaging in lawsuits their husbands don’t support, it’s probably not a particularly big deal. 

It’s a sort of natural evolution that you're geared to expect. And it’s really persistent. It persists into the 20th century. You know women in the 1950s couldn’t get banking accounts in their own name. When men were fighting in Vietnam in the 1970s, their wives couldn’t go to college because legally their residence was wherever their husbands were. So even though these women were living in the United States, as far as the government was concerned, they were in Vietnam, because that is where their husbands were. So they couldn’t go to college. So this is something that’s really only kind of, the last vestiges have really only fallen away pretty recently.

Harmony: That is fascinating. So is there an advantage then to being single or being widowed?

Lindsay: Widows have been studied because they do have particular powers. They are sort of re-empowered when their husbands die to act on behalf of their estate a lot of the time if they’re appointed as one of the executors. And they can act on their own behalf. They can launch lawsuits. They can make decisions about property. Same thing for single women, but there are also disadvantages, because society is sort of structured around you having a male head of household to represent you.

So it’s not necessarily a great situation because everything is geared on the assumption that you have a man providing for you. So wages are going to be lower for women. It’s going to be harder for them to sell property, but they do come up with a lot of solutions, particularly in urban areas where single women might live together or widowed women might take in boarders. But for the most part, most women are going to be married. They’re going to be married for most of their lives, and this is a legal reality that they understand and accept.

Harmony: At what age are folks getting married, and what does a wedding ceremony look like?

Lindsay: People aren’t generally getting married as young as we tend to assume. Most women are probably getting married in their early 20s and men in their late 20s. It tends to be skewed by really elite people. So really wealthy families, tend to see people getting married younger, especially daughters, often by 18, sometimes as young as 16. You kind of have to marry once you have the resources and you’re able to reproduce. It makes sense to get married. So for these elite families, that’s what they’re doing. In the 18th century, weddings are not a particularly large occasion. You might have close friends over, some family members, but especially in these families that are moving around a lot, or sort of split between different sides of the ocean, you just kind of do what you need to do, especially for men.

They might just write home and be like, “Oh, by the way, I got married.” So you might buy a new suit of clothes if you can afford it, but it’s something you’re going to wear again and repurpose. It’s going to be a more practical color. It might be blue or gray or something like that. So there isn’t sort of a look for a wedding dress. It’s really only in the very late 18th century and the 19th century that we start to see people inviting large groups of people over, women inviting friends to be their bridesmaids, and people giving wedding gifts.

So it’s not a particularly big thing for people to give a wedding gift to a bride and groom until the 19th century. When friends and sort of outside family members start participating in this ritual. Most of the time, it’s sort of between a couple and their parents, maybe their siblings, and their closest friends, usually in their living room. You just invite the minister over. You might get married in church. For some people, like Quakers, you do get married in church. That’s what makes it an official Quaker ceremony. Then you go home and kind of have people over. But it’s not a huge ordeal. People don’t necessarily sort of freak out about all of the arrangements.  It’s an important date definitely. People are treating it very solemnly, but it’s not sort of a huge festive occasion the way it’s going to be later in the 19th century or the way it is today.

Harmony: We’ve talked about marriage as an economic merger, but also is there great pressure to produce offspring? Is it also a business of creating?

Lindsay: On some level, it’s just expected. It’s sort of the package of marriage. Motherhood often follows very shorty afterward. We see letters from relatively elite young women lamenting how quickly they become pregnant and how often they have children. It’s something they accept. There is a move in the later 18th century towards trying to limit the number of children, particularly in northern places like Pennsylvania and New England.

In the South, not quite as much. And it’s a little unclear exactly why that happens, but some of it might have to do with slavery, and this emphasis on tradition and hierarchy that persists in the South. But most women are going to have, you know, half a dozen to a dozen children. It’s something they accept. They don’t necessarily look forward to being pregnant and giving birth, but they do look forward to having children most of the time.

Harmony: And that’s the job.

Lindsay: So that’s a lot of what they’re doing. We do see a shift as households sort of move from sites of production. So people are working on farms or plantations. They are producing things versus sites of consumption. So especially with the middle and upper classes, people are becoming lawyers or bankers or planters, and business starts to separate from the home. And increasingly it becomes that women’s primary duty is to rear children rather than to sort of collaborate with her husband on their endeavors for their livelihood. 

Harmony: With women having as many as a dozen children, and the tax and toll that takes on a body metabolically, the whole process, was there an increase in mortality for women?

Lindsay: So yeah. If you’re a woman, childbirth in and of itself, is a weird thing. Childbirth itself is not particularly dangerous, the real risk is in infection afterward. So dying from complications, like some sort of hemorrhage, are really rare. Dying from an infection is less rare. It’s obviously not happening all that often, otherwise we wouldn’t see families with a dozen children. But it is happening often enough that it’s a risk women know they’re facing every time they have another child.

So the cumulative risk over having a dozen children means that you’re probably going to know somebody, several people probably, who’ve died of infections after childbirth. So it’s something that women really tend to sit down literally, elite women tend to sit down late in their pregnancies and do things like write out their wills, write letters to their children, or take other precautions in case something like that happens. So the cumulative risk is pretty significant.

For the most part, and talking to the ladies at the apothecary shop here, a woman between sort of marriage and menopause, the greatest risk of death is probably from childbirth. But if she lives through that, and most women do, she’s probably going to live to be 60-70.  So we have sort of very skewed mortality rates because of that. So most women are ok. Some people have very bad luck. For instance, John Coulter was a young lawyer in Williamsburg in the late 18th century. He had two wives consecutively die, within two years of marriage, in childbirth. So it was only his third wife that actually lived through childbirth and had multiple children with him.  He married one of the daughters of St. George Tucker, actually, as his third wife.

Harmony: It seems like we’re looking at this as sort of strange, backward thinking, practices that people held. But are they more, do they have stronger roots in today’s practices than we may realize?
Lindsay: I guess it looks so strange to us in some ways because of the reduced legal limitations on women now. So it seems really weird to think you couldn’t get a credit card, or a loan, or apply to a school in your own name today, but we do see these sort of assumptions about how marriage works and how households are headed by men that persist in ways that are pretty harmful today. The wage gap, things that sort of assume that women are going to be parents and do the majority of the parenting affects how people think about women as workers.

So even now some of these patterns persist in this idea that there is going to be a gender division of labor based on a male breadwinner and a woman who is sort of taking care of the home raising children. So even now I think these are some of the things we are struggling with. In terms of even though we’ve reorganized marriage as sort of finally a union of legal equals rather than a relationship of dependency, we still have some of these other factors persisting that have proven pretty stubborn in terms of how we think about the family being organized, or the ideal family operating, or the ways that laws are set up to think how families are operating.

So in some ways, the 18th-century shift toward this model, which is pretty revolutionary, we now think of as traditional. And this is something that a lot of people try to point to as a way it’s always been when it really hasn’t. So the legal reforms that have made the family sort of private and recognized women as individuals have sort of culminated in breaking up the hierarchy within marriage. This idea that women are the subordinate partner, as far as the law’s concerned, but I think sort of socially and culturally, we still have to catch up with that a little bit.

Harmony: Lindsay, every word you have shared with us today, I have been fascinated by. Thank you so much for being our guest today and sharing all of these interesting revelations with us about the things that we think are traditional, but are actually quite modern, and the ways that we think that we’re modern, but we’re actually quite old fashioned. So thank you for being here today.

Lindsay: Thank you for having me. It was my pleasure.



  1. Listened to this podcast yesterday…one of the best I’ve heard. Would love to hear more from Lindsay…great historical presenter! Thank you!

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