Happily Ever After? The Nuances of Romance & Social Class in Late 18th-Century America

This week, we're exploring the second half of Laurie Halse Anderson's Fever 1793 with our Bridge Summer Reading Students. Thankfully, GLA Marketing Intern Katie Norton is here to give us some context for Mattie's relationship woes, exploring how social class influenced 18th-century women's marriage prospects. Let's dive in!


As we’ve seen in Fever 1793 so far, social class significantly influenced daily life in post-Revolutionary America. Although the new structure of American government distributed land ownership - and therefore political power - to a larger portion of lower- and middle-class people, a definite hierarchy still remained intact. And, as we’ll see, the nuances of this hierarchy directly impacted Mattie Cook and other young women of her time regarding courtship with potential suitors, subsequent marriages, and the legal status and power they would enjoy in adulthood.

Rungs on the Social Ladder

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At the very top of the social pyramid were the “gentry” class of wealthy landowners and merchants, financiers, local magistrates, church vestrymen, and councilmen. These people held the most power in their communities because of how much influence they had in religion, government, and business/trade. Wielding such power didn’t necessarily secure approval, though. As we’ve seen in our last post on women’s clothing during this time, Mattie thinks of the Ogilvie family and the rest of the upper-class as “snobbish” (46) and impractical.

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Below the gentry was a class of “middling” who made their living as tradesmen (blacksmith, silversmith, printing, millinery, etc.), doctors, lawyers, and store-owning merchants. class of people usually didn’t have as much money or land as the gentry, so they didn’t hold as much social power. This is probably where Mattie and her family fell in the social order; they definitely had some power because they owned their home and their coffeehouse, but they were directly responsible for keeping up and running their coffeehouse, so the gentry (i.e. the Ogilvie family) looked down on them for not having enough money to hire/purchase enough servants/slaves to handle the work on their own.

Similarly, in the southern states (Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia) whose economies were based on agriculture, small farmers were considered a part of the middle class, but somewhat under the middling because of the manual labor their work required. These farmers usually owned a small plot of land and might have had one or two slaves to help the family maintain the crops and household.

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At the bottom of the pyramid were the African Americans, with freed black people - like Eliza - having more social status and power than enslaved field hands and house servants, although such power was drastically less than that of any white person. Slavery wouldn’t be abolished until 1865 and African Americans wouldn’t win the right to vote until 1870, so even if a freed black person owned property, he or she wouldn’t have any political power whatsoever. Freed black people usually worked skilled jobs as blacksmiths, silversmiths, printers, etc. and earned wages to support themselves. When Mattie asks Eliza to be her partner in owning/running the coffeehouse, Eliza has an opportunity to become Mattie’s equal - something that was quite rare for freed Africans during this time.

Women, Class, and Marriage

White, middle- and upper-class women during this time experienced an interesting shift in political power as their relationship status changed. When the constitution was written, all of the colonies agreed to the dissolution of primogeniture laws, which said a father’s land would be inherited by his oldest son. Instead, each state instituted a law that said all of a father’s land and wealth should be distributed evenly among all children, meaning daughters had as much of a right to inherit and own property as sons. Although older, unmarried women were generally stigmatized as spinsters or Old Maids, single women had the power to own land, support themselves in any job that didn’t require a license exclusive to men, enter into contracts, buy and sell real estate, accumulate personal property (cash, stocks and bonds, livestock, slaves), sue and be sued, act as guardians, write wills, and act as executors of states.

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When most single women did marry, they still maintained some degree of legal status, but relinquished virtually all of their autonomy. This was premised on the idea of coverture, which essentially assumed that a family functioned best if a male head of the household controlled all of its assets. As such, married women could not own property independently of their husbands except in the event the couple had established something called a marriage settlement, which was basically a special contract that was rare and even illegal in some states. Wives were allowed to sue their husbands and gain support from the court if it was discovered that a husband wasn’t maintaining a lifestyle for his wife that was commensurate with his social status. This included the establishment of a dower, which consisted of one-third of a husband’s property if the couple had children and one-half if they did not. Dowers were meant to provide for the wife and children in the event of the husband’s death and formally recognized the wife’s dependent position on her husband.

Of course, a dower is not to be confused with a dowry, which was comprised of the real estate and personal property a father gave to his daughter upon her entrance into a new marriage. When a young couple began courting (mid-late teens for young women and late teens-early twenties for young men) and subsequently announced their intention to marry after several years of courtship, fathers gave a dowry as a measure of good faith to ensure their daughters would be properly taken care of. Because Mattie’s father dies when she is very young, Mattie must rely on her mother, her grandfather, and Eliza to guide her through the process of deciding the right man to marry - something that becomes a serious point of contention in Mattie’s relationship with her mother. Mattie’s mother, Lucille, wants Mattie to marry a man like Edward Ogilvie who will be able to provide a comfortable life for Mattie, but because romance has taken on a bigger societal influence in marriage and relationships, Mattie can’t help but find preference in Nathaniel Benson as a suitor despite the fact that he is a painter’s apprentice and therefore a fellow member of the “middling” class.

As we follow Mattie’s navigation through a wide range of problems - from tea with the Ogilvie family, to contracting Yellow Fever, to finding the “right” mate - we should think about how her social status and those of the other characters in the novel add an extra layer of complexity to the plot. Her identity as both a member of the “middling” class and as a female offer her privilege and power in some ways but hardship and adversity in others; it is only through her determination and resiliency that she will be able to overcome her problems and thrive in a world after the Fever.

Sources: 

https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/womens-history/essays/legal-status-women-1776–1830

http://www.history.org/history/teaching/trades.cfm

http://www.teenink.com/nonfiction/academic/article/591066/Political-Social-and-Economic-Change-after-the-American-Revolution/

http://www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/volume7/mar09/courtship.cfm

http://www.ushistory.org/us/12.asp


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Kaiti Norton is a 90’s baby, cat mom, and lit nerd just trying to find the perfect karaoke song. Her research interests include women and gender in literature. #nastywoman