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Hands and Hearts: Sexuality and Romance in Early New England

image of puritan-sexuality

The Ladies Magazine, a small publication in Boston, was bought by Godey's Ladies Book under the editorship of the renowned Sarah Josepha Hale. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Attitudes toward sexuality in early New England were the product of religious beliefs, cultural, and economic assumptions. From the arrival of the first Puritan settlers, communities and lawmakers had a vision of what constituted appropriate behavior between the sexes. Those views began to change in the early 19th century as an increasingly impersonal society and economy eroded the ability of communities to regulate these intimate relationships.  

English lifeways traveled to New England in the hearts and minds of the first Puritan settlers. Much of what we think we “know” about them comes to us filtered through the interests and impressions of others, in particular 19th and early 20th century Victorians. They were very interested in the Puritans, perhaps because their concern with piety and regulating behavior mirrored the Victorians' own era’s interest in these matters. As a result, they tended to focus on what they thought was the repressive worldview of the Puritans, ascribing to them an almost distressing lack of emotion, including romantic love, that encompassed a general hostility to earthly pleasure of any kind. The 20th century writer H.L. Mencken famously summed this up when he defined Puritanism as, "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

Less humorous was Mencken’s 1917 savage assault on Puritanism and its legacies:

The Puritan's utter lack of aesthetic sense, his distrust of all romantic emotion, his unmatchable intolerance of opposition, his unbreakable belief in his own bleak and narrow views, his savage cruelty of attack, his lust for relentless and barbarous persecution—these things have put an almost unbearable burden up on the exchange of ideas in the United States.

Thanks to the work of the celebrated historian Edward Morgan and other scholars, we now know that Mencken’s words reflected more what people in his time believed about Puritanism rather than Puritanism itself. Morgan found that they embraced sex with the same intensity with which they approached life in general. They did not merely tolerate it as a necessary evil; they positively embraced it so long as it occurred between a married couple. An anonymous Puritan writer celebrated sexual relations within the bounds of matrimony, declaring that a couple “may joyfully give due benevolence one to the other; as two musical instruments rightly fitted do make a most pleasant and sweet harmony in a well tuned consort.”

The modern perception that Puritans were hostile to sexual intimacy may be due to their zero tolerance for sexual activity outside of marriage, including encounters between same sex couples. Those detected in such activities were publicly chastised and in many cases subject to corporal punishment. Adultery was punishable by death and Plymouth Colony followed England’s lead in making sex between men a capital crime. Massachusetts punished men and women detected in same sex encounters, but the death penalty was not in force until the colony lost its original charter and became a royal colony in 1684. 

It was likely the harsh laws against considered sexual misconduct that created the common misconception that Puritans disapproved of sex or romantic love in general. So long as a married couple did not elevate their mutual love above their love for God, love and its intimate expression within marriage was celebrated. Only when a human relationship interfered with their relationship with God did a minister like John Cotton caution that human love had exceeded its proper bounds:

sometimes a man hath a good affection to Religion, but the love of his wife carries him away, a man may bee so transported to his wife, that hee dare not bee forward in Religion, lest hee displease his wife, and so the wife, lest shee displease her husband, and this is an inordinate love, when it exceeds measure.

The large amount of legislation and community concern on these issues suggests that a number of people were in fact engaging in sexual encounters outside of marriage. Surviving court and church records reveal high levels of extramarital sexual activity throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. In the decades just before and after the American Revolution, sexual activity before marriage did not diminish and in fact, may have increased. Historians estimate that as many as one third of New England brides were already pregnant before the wedding. Premarital sex was more or less tolerated so long as the couple married. The situation was far more serious when the expected marriage did not or could not take place. The unwed mother was shamed and the illegitimate child was a charge to the town unless the father (identified under law by the woman while in labor) could be forced to pay child support. It was no wonder that most early pregnancies resulted in the couple’s marriage sooner or later. 

These older lifeways and assumptions began to give way to new customs and beliefs in the 1820's and ‘30's. Premarital pregnancies decreased, not because courting couples lacked opportunity, but because of conscious decisions to avoid pregnancy. A more mobile society took men and women far from home in search of opportunities in new towns and cities. The assumption that sexual intimacy signaled a likely marriage no longer held the same force. 

In the same period, cultural pressure on a couple to delay marriage until they were able to set up their own household meant that most men did not marry until their mid-twenties, while women tended to marry in their early twenties. Courtship assumed a new significance as New England men and women came of age and made life decisions. Both sexes embraced the notion of romantic attachment before marriage, but sought to avoid the risks of physical intimacy. That divorce was extremely rare and difficult to obtain in this period made marriage an even weightier decision, especially for women whose economic as well as emotional well-being was completely invested in their spouse. Adultery was roundly condemned and pregnancy resulting from illicit liaisons was especially lamented and condemned. 

Just such a circumstance wrecked a potential scholarly collaboration involving Edward Hitchcock and an unidentified man, likely Dr. Dennis Cooley of Conway, Massachusetts. Hitchcock had looked forward to co-publishing an article on geology with Cooley, but all that ended when his potential co-author refused to marry a woman he had gotten pregnant. Hitchcock was bitterly disappointed but could not tolerate working with a man who had behaved so poorly, especially as the young woman in question faced disgrace and an uncertain future, thanks to Cooley’s refusal to marry her. That Hitchcock had been Conway’s minister before taking up a professorship at Amherst College increased his sense of pain, as he was acquainted with both parties. He also felt deeply, as a clergyman, the fear that publishing the article would condone Cooley’s actions in the eyes of the world. In a letter to his mentor, Benjamin Silliman of Yale College, Hitchcock asked if it was “the duty of the clergyman to refuse to have his name appear in conjunction with that of the layman? In other words, would it injure the cause of religion were he thus to publish? or ought he to give up the publication?" Silliman’s reply was sympathetic, but he was “sorry to say that I have no doubt as to what you must do, although the world ought to be more just than to say any thing as to the accidental association of names. But still I think the impression on religious people would not be agreeable & those of a different character might sneer." 

This painful episode is a window onto a world in which reputation was extremely important and men and women risked a great deal if they chose to engage in what society deemed improper liaisons. The sad fate of Cooley’s partner could not be a greater contrast to the courtship between Orra White and Edward Hitchcock over a period of years while they taught at Deerfield Academy. 

Their courtship and marriage exemplified the successful outcome society sought by couples and their families in the early 19th century. Advice literature of the period repeatedly emphasized the importance of choosing a life partner who would stand the test of time. Mentors stressed the need for spiritual and emotional as well as physical compatibility. In common with most of their contemporaries, Edward and Orra expected and wanted to marry. Their courtship reveals that romantic love, including physical attraction, were central to their relationship. They joined a generation of people who evinced a growing faith in the power of lived experience and romantic love.