United States of Amourica

Historiography & Analysis


Invitations to Intimacy:

Writing about Romantic Correspondence in Early America

          In eighteenth-century America, when public displays of romantic affection were still considered boorish and taboo, love letters offered both men and women a space to more freely express and develop romantic intimacy. This narrow mode of romantic expression stems, according to historian Karen Lystra, from an understanding of love at the time as “rooted in the concept of an ideal self … meant to be completely revealed to one person only.”[1] To this end, historical writing on early American romantic correspondence has tended to focus on the ways in which love letters straddled and bridged the public self – one concerned with social status and appearances – with the more transparent and unfettered private self. Despite this unifying theme, over the last three decades historians have approached the fairly nascent study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American love letters with varying interpretations of their significance. Specifically, I argue that while earlier writings on the topic primarily examined love letters within the relatively narrow context of courtship and as a common element of American romantic relationships, more recent works have broadened their focus to interpret love letters as a tool used by American men and women to establish and negotiate social networks and power.

If more recent writings have sought to argue the specific significance of love letters, then earlier investigations may be viewed as performing the preliminary step of establishing them as important documents a priori, and thus worthy of academic attention. Ellen K. Rothman’s 1984 book Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America tracks the customs and methods of courtship in America from the colonial era up through the 1920’s, with an epilogue that cursorily covers the decades between then and the book’s publication. Rothman establishes early on the key role that written correspondence played in the courtship process for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American youth, writing that such letters “provide a remarkably full record of the ideas and experiences surrounding the transition to marriage … [and] are more than the artifacts of a relationship; in many cases they were, for a time, the relationship itself.”.[2] Throughout the rest of her book – particularly the first two parts, which cover courtship through the end of the nineteenth-century, after which the popularity of personal writing began to decline – Rothman further substantiates this claim, using correspondence between hundreds of couples as her base texts.

However, Rothman herself admits that her work deals mostly with “the content of courtship correspondence” (9).[3] In practice, this means that she focuses on questions of discrepancy between male and female writings, trends in content, and so on, yet skirts around the broader social importance of these letters within the lives of their authors and their cohorts. Karen Lystra adopts a technique similar to Rothman’s in her own book from the same decade, Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America. Here, Lystra uses her own collection of romantic writings to challenge the stereotype of Victorian relationships as ones marked by “male-female emotional segregation and distance”, and instead offers that love letters gave couples a chance to lay bare sentiments and vulnerabilities that had no place in the public sphere.[4] Lystra argues throughout her book that this exercise, which “often succeeded in building unique, emotional bonds between lovers that emphasized their individuality, their distinctiveness, and their separateness”, thoroughly strengthened American individualism.[5] Her claim is a bold one that implicates the lives of many Americans, but her focus remains largely relegated, like Rothman’s, to the experiences of couples themselves, rather than examine the significance of love letters within a much larger ecosystem.

Fortunately, several 21st century historians have since expanded upon the groundwork laid by Rothman and Lystra in order to investigate the more nuanced significances of early American love letters. In her 2001 article “The Cornerstone of a Copious Work: Love and Power in Eighteenth-Century Courtship”, Nicole Eustace posits that romantic correspondence was, by definition, a negotiation of social roles: “declarations of sentiment were inseparable from assertions of status; love and power were intimately connected.”[6] Eustace directly places Rothman among the “many historians” who have located differences between male and female writings, but “seldom linked such differences to issues of gendered power.”[7]  Accordingly, Eustace focuses much less on the content of love letters, and more on why Americans wrote them in the first place, and to what end. She ultimately concludes that for men, courtship was an opportunity to gain and exert considerable social influence, while women experienced the near opposite, trading in any power they may have held for marital love and stability.[8] Both sides, she claims, obscured the “copious work” of re-negotiating power and social standing through love letters filled with romantic declarations.[9] Bryan Waterman’s analysis of the love letters from the Revolutionary-era poet Elizabeth Whitman to her fellow writer and occasional lover Joel Barlow, though certainly narrower in scope than any of the other works mentioned here, continues Eustace’s widening of the study of romantic letter-writing. His article “Coquetry and Correspondence in Revolutionary-Era Connecticut” (2011) pays particular attention to the tendency of 18th-century writers to keep their friends “in the loop” about any romantic correspondence they were currently engaged in, and would even use companions, not postmen, as couriers for their letters.[10] Letter-writers also did plenty of ‘name-dropping’, often finding ways to tie in and compare the romantic situations and social standing of their friends with their own (552).[11] Through these observations, Waterman thus offers an interpretation of love letters as networking tools, both for their authors and for the historians who study them.

Though tied together by their common acknowledgment of love letters as outlets for self-expression and divulgence not permitted in public, historical writing about early American romantic correspondence has experienced a noteworthy shift in focus from the role of these documents within the relationships they muse upon to well beyond them. In other words, more recent analyses by historians such as Eustace and Waterman suggest that these letters, while intended as an escape from the public eye, were nevertheless inextricably tied to social status and power. Waterman’s 2011 article invokes the recently popularized parlance of social network analysis and signals, perhaps inadvertently, the direction in which I anticipate the field is now moving. By performing various types of quantitative and network analysis to a sizable collection of letters, I hope to begin to remediate the lack of “hard” examination of early American love letters in a way that confirms (or denies) trends and arguments offered by the historians mentioned here, while also raising entirely new conclusions about these documents and their historical significance.

[1] Karen Lystra, Searching The Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) 7.

[2] Ellen K. Rothman, Hands And Hearts: A History of Courtship in America (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1984) 9.

[3] Rothman 9.

[4] Lystra 11.

[5] Lystra 9.

[6] Nicole Eustace, “’The Cornerstone Of a Copious Work’: Love and Power in Eighteenth-Century Courtship.” Journal of Social History 34.3 (2001): 518.

[7] Eustace 518-519.

[8] Eustace 537.

[9] Eustace 537.

[10] Bryan Waterman “Coquetry And Correspondence in Revolutionary-Era Connecticut: Reading Elizabeth Whitman’s Letters.” Early American Literature 46.3 (2011): 550.

[11] Waterman 552.

Works Cited

Eustace, Nicole. “’The Cornerstone Of a Copious Work’: Love and Power in Eighteenth-Century Courtship.” Journal of Social History 34.3 (2001): 517. America: History & Life. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

Lystra, Karen. Searching The Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.

Rothman, Ellen K. Hands And Hearts: A History of Courtship in America. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1984. Print.

Waterman, Bryan. “Coquetry And Correspondence in Revolutionary-Era Connecticut: Reading Elizabeth Whitman’s Letters.” Early American Literature 46.3 (2011): 541-563. America: History & Life. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

Primary Source Analysis


          In this 1776 letter from colonist Mary Hay Burn to her husband John Hay Burn, Mary explains that a man named Dirrick Hoogland has ordered her to relocate from her home in New-Hackensack, New York. Mary begs her husband, a Revolutionary soldier, to get permission to leave his company and return to New-Hackensack, NJ. But despite her reliance on her husband, Mary is not entirely powerless here. Unconsciously echoing Abigail Adams’ request for her own husband to “remember the ladies” when drafting the laws of the new nation, Mary voices her suspicion of a struggle for liberty that protects some of its supporters and evicts others.[1]

Mary mentions that John is “at King’s Bridge” (another city in New York), so it seems reasonable to assume that this was where he was stationed at the time. Because Mary refers to Dirrick Hoogland by name only, indicating some familiarity, and because she asks John to look to his superiors to “see whether Dirrick has any right to turn [her] out of doors”, it would appear that Mr. Hoogland is a revolutionary official himself. Though Mary both opens and closes her letter with assurances of love for her husband – “most loving husband” and “your loving wife” respectively – the body of the letter, which makes no other mention of her relationship with John, suggests that these are more formalities than sentimental terms of endearment. Mary’s priority here, very understandably, is to keep a roof over her head, not to warm John’s heart with romantic prose.

Mary’s very decision to write to her husband illuminates John’s social influence and her own lack thereof, as well as the degree to which she relied on her spouse for protection and financial support. Mary explains near the end of the letter that she has depleted the money John sent her, so if he can’t come home, he must “send all the money [he] can.” It is clear, though, that Mary would much prefer his actual return to any amount of money he might send, in all likelihood not just for the heightened physical safety his presence would bring her, but the emotional security as well.

Furthermore, the fact that she all but demands that her husband leave his post at King’s Bridge reveals her influence over John as well as her expectation that he prioritize her safety over his military service. Indeed, the only question Mary poses in the entire letter is not a polite entreaty for John’s return, but a rather poignantly worded reflection on their uneven social standings: “why should I not have liberty whilst you strive for liberty?” Mary’s letter thus illustrates the great potential that private, romantic correspondence provided 18th and 19th century women to voice her opinions and contest her social authority at a time when such negotiations could not easily occur in the public sphere or with other men.

[1] Abigail Adams, Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March – 5 April 1776 (Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive).

Works Cited

Adams, Abigail. Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March – 5 April 1776. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/. Accessed March 22, 2015.

Letter from Mary Hay Burn to John Hay Burn, 1776. American Archives: Documents of the American Revolutionary Period, 1774-1776. Northern Illinois University. http://amarch.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A104685. Accessed March 22, 2015.