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Article Index

I. New England Weddings

Of course, practically every American novel dealing with the colonial period--or any other period, for that matter--closes with a marriage and a hint that they lived happily ever afterwards. Did they indeed? To satisfy our curiosity about this point let us examine those early customs that dealt with courtship, marriage, punishment for offenses against the marriage law, and the general status of woman after marriage.

For many years a wedding among the Puritans was a very quiet affair totally unlike the ceremony in the South, where feasting, dancing, and merry-making were almost always accompaniments. For information about the occasion in Massachusetts we may, of course, turn to the inevitable Judge Sewall. As a guest he saw innumerable weddings; as a magistrate he performed many; as one of the two principal participants he took part in several. He has left us a record of his own frequent courtships, of how he was rejected or accepted, and of his life after the acceptances; and from it all one may make a rather fair analysis not only of the conventional methods and domestic manners of New England but also of the character and spirit of the other sex during such trying occasions. The evidence shows that while a young woman was generally given her choice of accepting or declining, the suitor, before offering his attentions, first asked permission to do so from her parents or guardians. Thus a marriage seldom occurred in which the parents or other interested parties were left in ignorance as to the design, or ignored in the deciding of the choice.

Sewall offers us sufficient proof on this point: "Decr. 7, 1719. Mr. Cooper asks my Consent for Judith's Company; which I freely grant him." "Feria Secunda, Octobr. 13, 1729. Judge Davenport comes to me between 10 and 11 a-clock in the morning and speaks to me on behalf of Mr. Addington Davenport, his eldest Son, that he might have Liberty to Wait upon Jane Hirst [his kinswoman] now at my House in way of Courtship."[230] And it should be noted that the parents of the young man took a keen interest in the matter, and showed genuine appreciation that their son was permitted to court with the full sanction of the lady's parents. Thus Sewall records: "Decr. 11. I and my Wife visit Mr. Stoddard. Madam Stoddard Thank'd me for the Liberty I granted her Son [Mr. Cooper] to wait on my daughter Judith. I returned the Compliment and Kindness."[231]

It might well be conjectured that to toy with a girl's affections was a serious matter. If the young man attempted without consent of the young woman's parents or guardian to make love to her, the audacious youth could be hailed into court, where it might indeed go hard with him. Thus the records of Suffolk County Court for 1676 show that "John Lorin stood 'convict on his own confession of making love to Mary Willis without her parents consent and after being forwarned by them, £5."[232]

But the lover might have his revenge; for if a stubborn father proved unreasonable and refused to give a cause for not allowing a courtship, the young man could bring the older one into court, and there compel him to allow love to take its own way, or state excellent reasons for objecting. Thus, in 1646 "Richard Taylor complained to the general Court of Plymouth that he was prevented from marrying Ruth Wheildon by her father Gabriel; but when before the court Gabriel yielded and promised no longer to oppose the marriage."[233]

And then, if the young gallant (may we dare call a Puritan beau that?) after having captured the girl's heart, failed to abide by his engagement, woe betide him; for into the court he and her father might go, and the young gentleman might come forth lacking several pounds in money, if not in flesh. The Massachusetts colony records show, for instance, that the court "orders that Joyce Bradwicke shall give unto Alex. Becke the some of xxs, for promiseing him marriage wthout her frends consent, & nowe refuseing to pforme the same."[234] Again, the Plymouth colony records as quoted by Howard, state that "Richard Siluester, in the behaife of his dautheter, and Dinah Siluester in the behaife of herseife 'to recover twenty pounds and costs from John Palmer, for acteing fraudulently against the said Dinah, in not pforming his engagement to her in point of marriage.'" "In 1735, a woman was awarded two hundred pounds and costs at the expense of her betrothed, who, after jilting her, had married another, although he had first beguiled her into deeding him a piece of land 'worth £100.'"

Serious as was the matter of the mere courtship, the fact that the dowry or marriage portion had to be considered made the act of marriage even more serious. The devout elders, who taught devotion to heavenly things and scorn of the things of this world, nevertheless haggled and wrangled long and stubbornly over a few pounds more or less. Judge Sewall seems to have prided himself on the friendly spirit and expediteness with which he settled such a matter. "Oct. 13, 1729. Judge Davenport comes to me between 10 and 11 a-clock in the morning and speaks to me on behalf of Mr. Addington Davenport, his eldest Son, that he might have Liberty to Wait upon Jane Hirst now at my House in way of Courtship. He told me he would deal by him as his eldest Son, and more than so. Inten'd to build a House where his uncle Addington dwelt, for him; and that he should have his Pue in the Old Meeting-house.... He said Madam Addington Would wait upon me."[235]

Not only was provision thus made for the future financial condition of the wedded, but also the possibility of the death of either party after the day of marriage was kept in mind, and a sum to be paid in such an emergency agreed upon. For example, Sewall records after the death of his daughter Mary: "Tuesday, Febr. 19, 1711-2.... Dine with Mr. Gerrish, son Gerrish [Mary's Husband], Mrs. Anne. Discourse with the Father about my Daughter Mary's Portion. I stood for making £550 doe; because now twas in six parts, the Land was not worth so much. He urg'd for £600, at last would split the £50. Finally, Febr. 20, I agreed to charge the House-Rent, and Differences of Money, and make it up £600."[236]