Colonial America – Kissin’ Cousins


“First comes love, then comes marriage”… – Everyone has heard the childhood chant that pits love and marriage eternally together. Although it is generally accepted that couples marry for love today, this hasn’t always been the case. In colonial times, marriage was considered a business arrangement and was rarely left to be decided by the young people involved (unless the single person was older and/or a widow or widower.)

The primary purpose behind a marriage proposal was to “make a good match” or, otherwise stated, to increase wealth. Often, the interested suitor would approach the girl’s father and present his desire to court the daughter or the fathers would confer together to come up with a suitable dowry arrangement. The young couple involved was generally expected to bow to their elder’s wishes, although a young woman could sometimes persuade her father to deny the attentions of an unwanted suitor. If permission was requested but denied, the couple was expected to end the relationship (if one existed). Often, the girl’s father would threaten to withhold financial support (i.e., the dowry) if his daughter insisted on marrying an unsuitable suitor.

Once permission was obtained, a courtship could begin. Contrary to today’s standards, couples in colonial America did not “date”. But often they did bundle. Contrary to the bundling scene in the movie “The Patriot”, bundling was generally only found in New England and had lost it’s popularity by the French and Indian War. Cold houses and six-day workweeks made it necessary for couples to devise new ways to socialize. Bundling consisted of a couple sleeping in the same bed, fully clothed. Often, they were sewn into their bedclothes and/or a board was placed between them. Assuming nothing untoward would happen, the couple was free to chat through the night. However, as the number of premature births rose among newly married couples, New England ministers began to condemn the practice of bundling. Both the British New Englanders and the Dutch practiced bundling for about 100 years before it fell out of favor. In other areas, most courtships were carried out at group events such as dances or at church or a woman could receive callers in their home.

The high rate of mortality for both men and women meant that courting could become a lifelong practice. Women who had children generally remarried quickly in order to have a male manage their property (although some women did this for themselves) and men who had young children quickly remarried in order to have a mother for their children. It wasn’t uncommon for a person to marry three or more times during their lifetime. Widows were particularly sought after since the lucky man who married one was able to acquire whatever wealth had been inherited from her former husband(s). It was also known for older widowers to abandon their courtship of the chosen widow if she demanded too high a price for her hand (i.e., a carriage or a yearly allowance).

Although courtship rituals and varied among the colonies, it was generally considered unfavorable to remain in a single state regardless of where one lived. A single woman at the age of 22 in Virginia would be considered an old maid and, although she may have to reach 27 in New England to wear the label, she would still be frowned upon. Some colonies went so far as to levy a tax on bachelors. Even though marriage was expected, it was more difficult to achieve the state favorably in some colonies. Usually, once an agreement among the parents had been reached (in the south) or the match was favorable to all parties involved (in New England), banns must be posted for several days to allow anyone to speak out against the marriage. It must be noted, however, that among the Quakers, the marriage had to be accepted by the family, the meeting and the community. Marriage between first or second cousins was forbidden and there was a total of sixteen phases that must be completed before the actual marriage ceremony. Finally, marriage outside the Society of Friends was strictly forbidden and would result in banishment from the religion. Consequently, the mid-Atlantic colonies had a higher rate of non-married people than any other area.

The Courtship of George and Martha

It could be said that George and Martha Washington had a whirlwind courtship. After spending about 20 hours together on no more than two occasions, the future President and first lady were engaged to be wed. Although not the first love of his life, Martha Dandridge Custis, the twenty-six year old widow of Daniel Parke Custis, became the agreeable recipient of Washington’s marriage proposal. A year older than the bridegroom, Martha possessed qualities that made her the most desirable woman in Virginia: an agreeable disposition and 17 thousand acres of prime farmland, producing primarily tobacco. If not for fate, one of the most respected couples in American history might never have married.

It has been said that George Washington was shy around women. It is no doubt that the first few objects of his affection did not return his enthusiasm. George also seemed to be drawn to ladies who would provide him with an improved financial and social standing in Virginia society. (Washington led a comfortable but not luxurious life.)

At the age of 20, Washington set his cap for Betsy Fauntleroy, the daughter of a Richmond justice and burgess. Despite his persistence, Betsy refused to return his attentions. In New York, Washington fell for Mary Philipse, a lady who owned fifty thousand acres and later married the Tory Roger Morris. After these two failures, Washington fell in love and began a correspondence with Sarah Cary Fairfax, a young bride of one of his neighbors. When his letters went unanswered, Washington went as far as to enlist the aid of Sally’s brother and sister in his (lost) cause. Despite a marked lack of response from Sarah and a warning from her sister-in-law to desist in his wooing, Washington continued to entreat Sarah for a response. That response came when she wrote to congratulate him on his engagement to Martha Custis, which caused George to pour out his feelings for Sarah, uttering sentiments never heard by Martha (whom he called his affectionate friend and worthy partner.)

Little is known of their courtship, except that they married less than a year after the death of Daniel Parke Custis and that Washington visited White House (the Custis’s home) two times before their engagement. (Their grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, has written of love at first site but there is no evidence to support this claim.) The wedding of George and Martha Washington was the social event of 1758/5 in Virginia. Although this was truly a marriage of convenience (Washington gained land and social standing, Martha gained a husband needed to run the plantation and business dealings), the couple never quarreled and seemed genuinely fond of each other. Although they never had children of their own, George raised Martha’s two children from her first marriage. During the first year of his marriage, Washington wrote to a friend “I am now I believe fixd at this Seat (Mt. Vernon) with an agreeable Consort for life…”