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Love and Courtship in Federalist America Essay

The courtships and marriages of Theodore Sedgwick and of his seven children span the American Revolution and the early republic, with Theodore first marrying in 1767/68, his children being born between 1775 and 1791, and all except Catharine marrying by their thirties. In some ways, Kenslea’s findings are unsurprising, as arranged marriages gave way to individual choice: Sedgwick arranged his eldest daughters’ marriages in 1797 and 1801, while his sons enjoyed love matches within a decade. But Kenslea’s focus on the family adds a new dimension: male influence in arranging young women’s marriages apparently extended beyond fathers to brothers. Professing “so much pride and pleasure in contemplating her worth, that I want the world to know what a sister I possess” (45), Theodore II insisted Frances marry Ebenezer Watson, whom she did not love. When Watson turned out to be physically abusive, Frances’s brothers again played a significant role by using their influence on her husband’s business as a way to control him and offering their homes as a refuge.

Just as brothers influenced their sisters’ marriages, peers played a significant role in love matches: in both cases, courtship took place in a group context. Even when love superseded paternal choice, siblings made clear that marriage to someone was necessary: as Catharine Sedgwick asked her equivocating brother, “What are you doing? Sucking your thumbs, and building castles while all the birds of the air are building their nests” (110). Friends were equally important in shaping courtship. The wonderfully named “Friendlies”—a group of single and married Boston women in their twenties—not only provided the younger Sedgwicks with potential wives, but advised them on how to choose well.

Kenslea demonstrates that marrying for love by no means simplified choice; instead, both men and women employed badinage as a way of ascertaining intent without committing themselves, and alliances shifted so quickly that the Sedgwick men seem to have courted all the Friendlies at once. Such “dizzingly complex” male/female relations (119)—replete with wit, romantic potential, and power plays—suggest parallels to the mixed groups Catharine Allgor discovered in the early republic’s political salons (103). At least during courtship, male/female spheres had remarkably porous boundaries, and Kenslea finds the beginnings of the “domestication of virtue” (169) in the early republic, as personal happiness succeeded public good.

As couples became engaged, they retreated from friends and family and developed relationships Kenslea finds similar to those Karen Lystra discovered among Victorians two decades later. In Harry Sedgwick and Jane Minot’s engagement of 1816-17, they quit badinage for candor, tested their relationship with a year long separation as Sedgwick established himself financially, and created new selves by employing letters as a form of physical contact and “ritual celebration of their love” (131). Like Lystra, Kenslea finds “fluidity of gender roles” (155), with Jane complimenting Harry, “you are the nearest to a woman in your feelings of any man I know” (144). The Sedgwick manuscripts, however, allow Kenslea to examine such courtships through siblings’ and parents’ eyes, rather than only from the couple’s perspective.

If the Sedgwicks provide much evidence of family and friends’ roles in court- ship and the erosion of distinct gender roles, they also suggest the limits of change. The Sedgwicks occupied a narrow cut of society—Federalist, Unitarian, and upper class—but male privilege framed their lives.


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