Read the Revolution
Founding FriendshipsMarch 5, 2021
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What do you write (or text) your friend that would confuse just about anyone else? In the 18th century, women and men who wanted to remain “just friends," while influencing each other's political views, carefully crafted their relationships in written communication. Although they were fraught with social danger, these friendships represented a transitional moment in gender and culture and embodied the core values of the new nation. In Founding Friendships: Friendships Between Men and Women in the Early American Republic, Dr. Cassandra Good explores how, by forming friendships, women and men challenged social expectations but embraced founding ideals of freedom, choice, and equality in the early United States.
In this excerpt from Chapter 5, Good analyzes the risks and tactics involved with letter writing, especially when their authors anticipated these letters’ inevitable interception, and misinterpretation, in the mail.
“Illiberal custom prevents a correspondence between the sexes,” Nancy Shippen wrote in 1784. Yet in letter writing as with personal interactions, friends broke from such “illiberal custom” and maintained their friendships with people of the opposite sex with careful positioning and hewing to virtuous, egalitarian ideals. Given how often friends were separated from one another, and sometimes for the majority of their friendships, letters were a vital means to keep up friendships and substitute for absent friends. Indeed, letters were more than means of conveying information. As Elihu Hubbard Smith wrote to his friend Idea Strong, "Correspondencies, like partnerships & marriages, may produce important consequences, & ought to be engaged in with some caution, & much meditation.” That caution and mediation was amply recorded in letters between male/female friends, and it was necessary in part because letters were much less private than we might imagine.
Examining the process of letter exchange and the ways friends framed their letters to one another illustrates how the boundaries and practices of mixed-sex friendships operated in everyday life. With no published models to turn to, the practice of writing letters also helped create the appropriate bounds for proper letterwriting between male/female friends as well as shaping the boundaries of the friendships themselves. This was a practice not merely of writing, but of the exchange of material substitutes for absent friends through the written word, paper, and even personal seals. These letters could model the proper forms for male/female friendship and how to carry on those relationships. In letters between male/female friends, then, there was an accretion of practices that gave men and women a sense for the acceptable forms for letters and expression in these relationships.
Many of these writers acknowledged that they were subverting an “illiberal custom”—or, in other writers’ words, “foolish prejudice,” “an established rule,” “what prudes may call the rules of propriety,” “errors of common fastidiousness,” or “fictitious regulations.” In other words, these writers were aware of a prohibition on writing between unmarried men and women. Such a prohibition played an important part in crafting model heterosexual interactions that would lead to virtuous marriages. It is difficult to tell precisely how much of a hold this rule had on men and women because we cannot know how many friends were willing to forgo writing each other because of it, but there are many examples of the rule being broken and derided. The fact that men and women felt the need to apologize for or explain why they were breaking the rule, and to carefully position their letters within their social networks, suggests that they recognized their quiet, careful transgressions. It is not that these friends thought they could overturn custom, but rather that they could manipulate it to serve their own ends. Here are tactics that refuse to conform to the established order, lending a subtle political valence of resistance and creating some space for freedom in the everyday practice of writing a friendly letter.
Letters as Public Objects
Letters were not merely private communications but also semi-public objects that could convey messages to circles of people. They were often read aloud or passed among a circle of friends. Especially for women dependent on a husband or father, letters could be monitored for proper behavior. Even in transit, letters were not private. Letter writers often noted who carried a letter for them, particularly if it crossed the Atlantic, in part to signify the level of privacy the writer expected as the letter made its way to the recipient. The choices writers made in shaping both the appearance and physical aspects of the letter, as well as its content, were important in shaping community perceptions.
Even the outside of a letter, with its address and seal, could incite gossip. Elizabeth Slough, whose best friend Eliza was courting their mutual friend Fielding Lucas, knew that his letters would “pass through several hands before they are delivered into mine.” Thus, she asked Lucas to stop using his seal on the letters he sent her because “the good People here have determined that you are my Beaux.” For cross-sex friends, the worry was about more than private information becoming public. Their concerns turned on expressions of sentiment and whether that sentiment would be misinterpreted as romantic love rather than friendship.
As Elizabeth Slough’s case demonstrates, however, sentiment was conveyed not just through words but also through material signs. The carefully folded pages, inscribed in a friend’s unique hand and sealed with melted wax constituted an object of exchange, an artifact that substituted for a correspondent’s physical presence. Letter writing guides often specified proper posture, the way to hold a pen, even appropriate facial expressions, imbuing handwriting with the sense of the body being translated into ink on the page.
At a time when letters were often delivered by an acquaintance, even if sent through the postal service, prying eyes would look for fodder for gossip. As Benjamin Franklin wrote his friend Catharine Ray in 1755, “I know very well that the most innocent Expressions of warm Friendship, and even those of meer Civility and Complaisance, between Persons of different Sexes, are liable to be misinterpreted by suspicious Minds and therefore though you say more, I say less than I think.” Franklin was writing before the great expansion in personal correspondence, and particularly before it became common for well-educated women to write personal letters in the British Atlantic. Already he had sensed the risks inherent in a pair of men and women corresponding (particularly when one was a famous public figure) and suggested how he would choose his words carefully. While by the early republic plenty of pairs of men and women wrote one another, Franklin’s concern about “suspicious Minds” was still a problem.
Abigail Adams’s friend James Lovell was not as circumspect as Franklin, causing her great alarm. After two particularly flirtatious letters, she chastised Lovell on the grounds that his words could cause them both public embarrassment. She asked Lovell, “What a figure would some passages of a Letter Dated Janry. 6th and another of Janry. 13th have made in a public Newspaper? For a Senator too? If their letters had been intercepted, it was possible they could enter print for widespread public distribution.
If there was no model for correspondence between male/female friends, what differentiated the friendly letters from the romantic ones? In some cases, the differences are very slight. The sort of visual, bodily clues that friends might offer in person were impossible in letters. The use of the term “friend” is also not helpful, as both courting and married couples commonly referred to each other as friends. Most letters between two friends, family members, or spouses contained similar content: the latest news on friends and family, discussions of books read or talks attended, and inquiries into each other’s health. Sometimes the character of the relationship can only be understood within a larger context. But it is also the case that most surviving letters between male/female friends did not involve young, unmarried people who might later become romantically involved, but between pairs in which at least one person was married.
Elihu Hubbard Smith suggested an explanation for this: “Young people live together. They do not, therefore, write to each other. When separated, they have no means of regular communication.” Certainly, there would have been more risk involved in misunderstandings of the term relationship if young, unmarried men and women wrote each other. Yet Smith went on to say that when people married, they were too busy to write. In his estimation, it was slightly older, single people who found the time and desire to write one another. This was indeed the case in the letter in which he offers this explanation: he was twenty-six and single, and he wrote to the thirty-year-old, single school matron Sarah Pierce.
Letters between both lovers and friends must be carefully compared for fine differences in word choice, particularly in the opening and closing rituals of the letters. The most comprehensible study of courtship letters examines letters of a slightly later period, beginning in the 1820s. In this study, Karen Lystra writes of openings and closings as ways of binding the sender and receiver together through “a highly ritualized display of the level of relationship intimacy and commitment.” Courtship letters frequently used first names or even pet names as the couple became more intimate, and the closings of the letters evolved from more formal to effusive and emotionally intense. These letters also used the terms “love,” “emotion,” “delicate,” “heart,” and “impression on my heart.”
In contrast, letters between mixed-sex friends used different salutations and closings, or superscriptions and subscriptions. Most frequently, letters began with “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam.” While the writer might sign his or her first name, he or she rarely used the recipient’s first name. Letters usually closed with a few lines conveying affection and good wishes to the recipient’s family, spouse, or friends before the formal subscription. Unlike the effusively emotional endings of courtship letters, friendly subscriptions were more measured. They occupied a middle ground between the romantic and the business letter; the latter commonly ended with “very respectfully” or “your obedient servant.” The most commonly used words in subscriptions of male/female friendship, by contrast, were “friend,” “sincere,” “esteem,” “respect,” and “affection.” These were all terms associated with genteel friendships, with “esteem” carrying the particular weight of distinguishing a friendship from a romance.
Another popular closing for letters in this era was “your friend and humble servant.” To modern eyes, this sounds like a subservient and rather businesslike way to close a letter. But as the time, this was a subscription used between equals. This signature recognized that friends were each other’s “servants” in the sense of being obliged to one another for mutual affection, gifts, services done for one another, and the receipt of the letter itself. Friends could also add multiple layers of subscriptions, and often combined declarations of affection with the “servant” subscription. For instance, John Rodgers signed an 1803 letter to his friend Ann Pinkney:
I shall wait with impatience for your answer and am Dear Miss with affectionate Respect & Esteem
Your Old Huml. Servant
While both men and women could use this subscription, it appears to have been employed more commonly by men. This could have been in part because women incurred more risk than men for writing letters to the opposite sex, and thus the men felt an additional sense of obligation to female friends. It may also have been a sort of courtly politeness that some men felt was due to their female friends.
Cassandra Good, Founding Friendships: Friendships Between Men and Women in the Early American Republic (Oxford University Press, 2015), 107-114.
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