Colonial dating and marriage

In the seventeenth century, fathers - supported by local churches and courts - exercised close control over their childrens’ sexual behavior and kept sexual intercourse prior to marriage at extremely low levels.The percentage of women who bore a first child less than eight-and-a half months after marriage was below ten percent.

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Parental influence and involvement in the selection of their children's marriage partner visibly declined.

Young women and men were increasingly free to pick or reject a spouse with little parental interference.

A hundred twenty-nine years later, in 1838, another couple began their courtship.

Theodore Dwight Weld, a 39-year old abolitionist, wrote a letter to Angelina Grimke, the daughter of a wealthy, slaveholding South Carolina family who had turned against slavery, in which he disclosed ‘that for a long time you have had my whole heart.’ He had ‘no expectation and almost no hope that [his] feelings are in any degree RECIPROCATED BY YOU.’ Nevertheless, he asked her to reveal her true feelings.

In his love letters, Theodore listed his flaws and worried that he was not deserving of Angelina's love.

He was a ‘vile groveling selfish wretch’ - reckless, impatient, careless in appearance, and poorly educated.Although most families in early New England did not practice strict primogeniture - the right of inheritance belonging to the eldest son - many families did assign older sons a larger share of resources than younger children.Receiving larger inheritances themselves, eldest sons tended to marry daughters of wealthier families.By the middle of the eighteenth century, the figure had shot up to over forty percent.Another indicator of a decline in paternal authority was an increase in children's discretion in deciding whom and when to marry.By the middle of the eighteenth century, well before the onset of the American Revolution, the ability of fathers to delay their sons' marriages until their late twenties had eroded.Greater freedom in selection of a spouse was also apparent in a gradual breakdown in a seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century pattern in which the order of a son's birth was closely connected to the economic status of his future spouse.Indeed, they associated romantic love with immaturity and impermanence.True love, the Puritans believed, would appear following marriage.The law gave parents ‘the care and power..the disposing of their Children in Marriage’ and it was expected that they would take an active role overseeing their child's choice of a spouse.A father in Puritan New England had a legal right to determine which men would be allowed to court his daughters and a legal responsibility to give or withhold his consent from a child's marriage.


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