Marriage Before the American Revolution Discussion/March 1998


Marriage Before the American Revolution Discussion/March 1998


Query from Miguel Juarez 16 Mar 1998

I'd like to pose a question to the list concerning marriage under English law in the years prior to the American Revolution. Is it feasible to think that people migrated to the New World because they wanted more of a say on who they married, as opposed to it being dictated by British ecclesiastical and civil courts or is this more of a contemporary view steeped in Western ideals?


From Sandra F. VanBurkleo 17 March 1998

For Miguel Juarez:

I don't know exactly what you mean by English church and civil courts telling people who to marry -- perhaps this requires some clarification on your part. But, if you mean that early modern English authorities told people who they could and could not marry, that's probably not true, except to the extent that certain religions were illegal. Both at law and in a lay sense, marriage, for most of the period, meant little more than a couple's agreement to be married, expressed in a way that the community recognized, consummated (with sexual intercourse), and PERHAPS (although not necessarily) blessed by the church; this was true even in the Catholic eras (and remember that England, unlike other Protestant realms in Europe, retained Catholic rules about marriage and divorce after its Protestant reformation). On all of this, see Roderick Phillips, PUTTING ASUNDER (which is really about divorce, but has invaluable information about marriage itself scattered throughout). Families DID exert pressure upon young people to marry within class, for example, particularly in the upper classes; and, in some cases, young women found themselves pawns in a family's attempt to secure or retain power. But -- I don't read your message to be meaning this; and courtship/marriage in working class or peasant families probably operated much differently.

In the New World, the marriage MARKET was much different than in England. This is a very complex subject; for statistical information, see Jack Greene, PURSUITS OF HAPPINESS (and material in his bibliography). But, generally, we know that planting colonies to the south retained Anglican prohibitions against permanent divorce and a canonical view of marriage; here, in other words, the situation was most like in England in formal terms. But, in social terms, the situation was much different. Never has there been such a marriage market if you were female and wanted to get married -- and didn't mind risking death. The sex ration in the Chesapeake for awhile was six to one (!) -- although, of course, death rates were astronomical and widowhood all too common. So, if you mean to be saying that women who came to the Chesapeake could hope to marry -- then yes. In one Maryland study, only one woman in the 17th century did NOT marry. But these are artifacts of very peculiar demographic conditions, which steadily corrected as the 17th century advanced (see work by Lois Carr, Thad Tate, Rus Menard, et al). In the northerly colonies of British North America, Puritan magistracies maintained a contractual view of marriage, and allowed permanent divorce (though divorce still was very rare until the end of the 17th century). The sex ratio was more balanced. One generally did not marry beyond the community of the faithful, if one was Puritan; but I don't see ground for thinking that this was NOT the case in England as well -- in fact, in Puritan communities, for as long as Puritanism held sway, I'd be prepared to say that family and communities exerted MORE constraint on young women and men -- especially religious pressure, thereby limiting choices. Tell me if this is what you mean, or not.

From Lisa A Cochran <> 17 Mar 1998

You might look into _Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America_ by John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman. As I recall they quote some colonial women as saying that the man you marry really doesn't matter as long as he's not a drunk. They seemed more concerned with practicalities, perhaps, than love. The actual wedding of colonial couples could be pretty casual, sometimes merely instituted by the couple living together and the neighbors acknowledging it, I think that this situation had more to do with the unavailability of ministers and the pragmatism of the colonists. I'm interested in what others think. (BTW, I'd recommend the book as a great source for anyone working on sex and marriage in America.)

From Sonja M Barclay SMB 17 Mar 1998

I believe you have a contemporary romantic notion that you're reading into the lives of women and men.... It is possible that the more noble the bloodlines, the greater coercion there was to marry in a more pre-arranged way, but twenty years of experience researching family lines on both sides of the Atlantic have taught me that there was a fair amount of latitude in who a person could marry by the seventeenth century and certainly by the eighteenth. As far as ecclesiastical and civil court precedence, it followed right across the ocean--the reading of the banns, etc., was still prerequisite anywhere English settlers dominated the cultural landscape.

I think we are taught from grade school on a very romantic understanding of why our forebears left what they knew to start over again in a new environment. I do now believe that religious freedom was actually as significant as our society would like you to almost always, then as now, come down to practical reasons--land and opportunity.

From Joan R. Gundersen 17 Mar 1998

Marriage laws were not much involved in limiting WHOM one married (except forbidden degrees of kin which were few). The real limits were parental consent and here despite laws, the major inhibiter was property and parental consent. Under British law of wills, a father could use a will to distribute property pretty much as he wished. Thus children did not have guarantees except for property entailed by grandparents. None of these situations really changed in the colonies.