A Worthy Young Man with Handsome Prospects before Him”: Financial Calculation and Marital Property in Early America

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 1:30 PM
Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Lindsay Keiter, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Despite the proliferation of modern economic and financial institutions in the late eighteenth through mid-nineteenth centuries, families continued to serve critical wealth management functions – and marriage continued to be a key mechanism for the distribution of wealth between generations. Yet economic history is often still construed as public, and most histories of marriage in early America focus on the development of “companionate marriage,” in which partners were selected primarily on the basis of compatibility, thus artificially dividing “family” from “business.”

This paper reunites these concepts by exploring how early American families approached marriages much as they did business decisions, with an eye toward credit, economic networks, and the riskiness of the investment. Indeed, economic metaphors circulated freely in both the private papers and published sources used here to analyze how wealthy families assessed marital options within the rapidly evolving economic context of the Early Republic and antebellum years. Despite the growing emphasis on companionate marriage, the doctrine of coverture (which transferred women’s property to their husbands upon marriage) remained unchanged, keeping the financial stakes of marriage high for both women and men. Parents and guardians monitored and managed children’s courtships to ensure their future security and the effective use of family wealth. From pointed advice to active interference, parents strove to remind their children of the financial significance of marriage and encouraged them to choose “worthy” partners.

While the consistent emphasis on the economics functions of marriage remained largely unchanged, this paper also examines the means by which families managed wealth responded to economic and legal development. Thus, it demonstrates how families behaved to degree like businesses while privately fueling the growth of modern economic instruments and institutions, contributing to the larger conversation over the flexibility of the categories of “economic,” “public” and “private” before the Civil War.

Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>