Week 5: Reading Guide: Primary Sources on Marriage and the American Revolution

The big histories of American marriage we read in week two all identify the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries (the era of the American Revolution and "Early Republic") as important periods of change. During the next two weeks we'll be looking first at a set of primary documents from this period, and then at what several prominent historians have had to say about it. Our challenge (and theirs) is to try to sort out what about marriage changed, what stayed the same, and why. How do different kinds of sources lend themselves to different kinds of stories?

Questions to think about:

  1. If Kathleen Brown or Laurel Ulrich were to expand her book to include this week’s primary source readings, what would they do with them? What pieces of evidence that would seem to fit in either Ulrich or Brown’s work as it stands? What pieces would seem out of place? Why?
  2. Imagine your self in 1750, considering marriage. (You are also encouraged to imagine yourself as someone else – male or female, rich, poor, enslaved or in service . . .) How would you meet a prospective spouse? What kind of qualities would you be looking for in a mate? What would courtship be like? What would you see as your most important responsibility within the marriage? What would you do if you didn’t want to marry the prospective partners you encountered? Or if you weren’t sure about marriage at all? Now imagine yourself in 1790 in a similar situation.

Questions to write about:

Focus your paper on one of the following:

  1. Judging from the readings for today, did anything about marriage change between 1750 and 1790? (You can use thought question 2 as a way into this.)
  2. Imagine you are the lawyer of one of the unhappily married persons who appear in these newspaper ads, or of Peter Sanford or his wife. What advice would give this person about their legal options? Would this person's “friends” (meaning kin and social network) give the same or different advice? Be sure to specify whom you’ve chosen as your client, and to base your advice on the legal rules found in the William Blackstone and Thomas Jefferson readings. (Carole Shammas might also help, but you want to emphasize primary sources.) Remember that strong arguments anticipate counter arguments: What objections might advocates of this person's spouse raise if the case went to court?