by Dan Shippey &

Michael Burns

   “But ALL FOR LOVE is my motto.” 

                             Alexander Hamilton

     Most Americans today think of the Revolutionary War era as stuffy and passionless. Our Founding Fathers and Mothers would have been surprised to hear that. True enough, George and Martha didn’t have Barry White albums, speed dating or honeymoons in Vegas--but they did have romantic ballads, balls and handfasting.

      Many of our founders left records of their courting in their letters and family stories. John and Abigail Adams wrote passionate letters to each other. They adopted pen names like Diana (the chaste and beautiful Roman goddess of the moon) and Lysander (the Spartan war hero). Often John addressed his letters to Abigail as Dear Adorable. Thomas Jefferson is said to have heard the widow Martha Wales Skelton singing in her Williamsburg home. Knowing that this meant she had completed her mourning period for her late husband, he jumped off his horse and grabbed his kit (small violin) from his saddlebag. Presenting himself at the door, he inquired if he might accompany her in a duet. We will never know about the intimate nature of George and Martha Washington’s love because she burned all of their correspondence to keep it private. What we do know, from the few writing examples that survived, is that he doted on her and she fondly called him her “old man.” Washington proposed marriage just three weeks after he met Martha. During the war, Martha took every chance she got to make the dangerous journey to stay with the General in camp, and when she was gone he pined to be home. Every night of their 40 year marriage that they were not separated by business or war they slept in the same bed. When he died, Martha closed the room and never slept there again.



     Opportunities to meet members of the opposite sex were special occasions in the 18th century. Going to church, balls, parties, public entertainments or a friend’s home to visit were some prime places for young men and women to meet. Normal rules forbade speaking to a member of the opposite sex in the street until you had been introduced. Once you had met someone of interest you did not “ask them out on a date,” but asked if you might call on them (at home) during the day. This guaranteed that your visit would be safely chaperoned. Often you might spend time in the family parlor while you visited, possibly with other family members around. Walks were allowed so that a young couple might stroll and have private conversation, but a man was expected to act honorably. Oddly enough, women (being the daughters of sinful Eve) were thought of as being more likely to have lustful tendencies; a man was expected to show self control.

        During the mid to late 1700’s men might begin courting in their late teens and women as early as 15, with the average man marrying in his mid 20’s. Since a man did not come into his majority (an adult with full power over his life and fortune) until age 21, many a proposed marriage was cancelled by a father who did not approve of the match. For a daughter of a merchant or higher class family the courting years might be the most carefree and powerful of their lives. They were finished with their domestic education and they could say yes or no to suitors as they pleased. Only a widow had more power over her life and fortunes than this. Differences in age did not seem to bother the revolutionary generation when it came to courting and marriage. John Adams was 28 when he married 19 year old Abigail Smith, while George Washington was 7 months younger than his bride Martha. 


     Legal cases and the court records left behind tell us of occasions when couples strayed from the rules of courtship. The shocking truth is that some historians estimate as many as 1 in 3 colonial era brides were pregnant when they said “I do.” When a girl was found to be pregnant, marriage almost always followed. It was considered criminal to father a child and not take the mother as your wife because the expense and burden of raising the child would fall to the community and often the church. A man who did not immediately step up and marry the girl was nothing but a villain and a rogue. Also from court records we find then, as now, there were elopements for couples who chose their love over their inheritance or had no inheritance worth speaking of. Most often, couples that ran off were in for a hard road. They would have no family to support them or obvious means to support themselves. For those in the lower class that could not get their parents’ good will, there was the choice of handfasting. No minister or justice of the peace was needed for handfasting; you just joined hands and declared yourself married. Often handfasting was officiated by a blacksmith over the anvil where the union was symbolically forged, but the ceremony might be performed anywhere and without any official. 

      Throughout history, every generation has imagined that they invented love and romance, and that their parents were just following some old fashioned morals. One   comedy popular in the American colonies/states was the English play Polly Honeycombe, by John Colman. Our young heroine Polly dreams of being swept off her feet like the many romantic novels she has read, but her old fashioned Father just doesn’t understand. He wants her to marry the boring broker Mr. Ledger. Polly finds her hero in a poor aspiring writer named Scribble. She enacts scenes from her romantic, exciting and adventurous books and tries to outwit her distracted Mother and out of touch Father. Mistaken identities, surprise revelations and hilarity of course ensue. Is this so different a plot from the romantic comedies we see today?

     Revolutionary Era America may have been more structured when it came to courting, more restrained when it came to relationships, and more businesslike when it came to marriage--but was it less romantic? I suppose it depends on your definition of romance. In the 18th century every dinner (supper) was eaten by candlelight and going out would always involve a carriage ride. In the end, maybe the question can be summed up in this way: this Valentines Day, would you prefer to get a quill and ink handwritten letter professing the sender’s undying respect and affection, or a text message asking “DY wnt2go out 2nite?”