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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Some Reflections on Matrimony

By John Witherspoon (1723–1794)

[“Letters on Marriage.” Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon. 1800.]

IT is not by far of so much consequence, what are the talents, temper, turn of mind, character, or circumstances of both or either of the parties, as that there be a certain suitableness or correspondence of those of the one to those of the other.

Those essay writers, who have taken human nature and life as their great general subject, have many remarks on the causes of infelicity in the marriage union, as well as many beautiful and striking pictures of what would be just, generous, prudent, and dutiful conduct, or their contraries, in particular circumstances. Great pains have been taken also to point out what ought to be the motives of choice to both parties, if they expect happiness. Without entering into a full detail of what has been said upon this subject, I think the two chief competitors for preference have generally been—good nature and good sense. The advocates for the first say, that as the happiness of married people must arise from a continual interchange of kind offices, and from a number of small circumstances, that occur every hour, a gentle and easy disposition—a temper that is happy in itself—must be the cause of happiness to another. The advocates for good sense say, that the sweetness of good nature is only for the honey-moon; that it will either change its nature, and become sour by long-standing, or become wholly insipid; so that if it do not generate hatred, it will at least incur indifference or contempt; whereas good sense is a sterling quality, which cannot fail to produce and preserve esteem—the true foundation of rational love.

If I may, as I believe most people do, take the prevailing sentiments within the compass of my own reading and conversation, for the general opinion, I think it is in favor of good sense. And if we must determine between these two, and decide which of them is of the most importance when separated from the other, I have very little to say against the public judgment. But in this, as in many other cases, it is only imperfect and general, and often ill understood and falsely applied. There is hardly a more noted saying than that a man of sense will never use a woman ill, which is true or false according to the meaning that is put upon the phrase, using a woman ill. If it be meant, that he will not so probably beat his wife, as a fool; that he will not scold or curse her, or treat her with ill manners before company, or indeed that he will not so probably keep a continual wrangling, either in public or private, I admit that it is true. Good sense is the best security against indecorums of every kind. But if it be meant, that a man will not make his wife in any case truly miserable, I utterly deny it. On the contrary, there are many instances in which men make use of their sense itself, their judgment, penetration, and knowledge of human life, to make their wives more exquisitely unhappy. What shall we say of those, who can sting them with reflections so artfully guarded that it is impossible not to feel them, and yet almost as impossible with propriety to complain of them?

I must also observe, that a high degree of delicacy in sentiment, although this is the prevailing ingredient when men attempt to paint refined felicity in the married state, is one of the most dangerous qualities that can be mentioned. It is like certain medicines that are powerful in their operation, but at the same time require the utmost caution and prudence, as to the time and manner of their being applied.—A man or woman of extreme delicacy is a delightful companion for a visit or a day. But there are many characters which I would greatly prefer in a partner, or a child, or other near relation, in whose permanent happiness I felt myself deeply concerned. I hope nobody will think me so clownish as to exclude sentiment altogether. I have declared my opinion upon this subject, and also my desire that the woman should be the more refined of the two. But I adhere to it, that carrying this matter to an extreme is of the most dangerous consequence. Your high sentimentalists form expectations which it is impossible to gratify. The gallantry of courtship, and the bienséance of general conversation in the beau-monde, seem to promise what the downright reality of matrimony cannot afford.

I will here relate a case that fell within my observation. A person of noble birth had been some years married to a merchant’s daughter of immense fortune, by which his estate had been saved from ruin. Her education had been as good as money could make it, from her infancy: so that she knew every mode of high life as well as he. They were upon a visit to a family of equal rank, intimately connected with the author of this letter. The manner of the man was distinguished and exemplary. His behavior to his lady was with the most perfect delicacy. He spoke to her as often as to any other, and treated her not only with the same complacency, but with the same decency and reserve, that he did other ladies. To this he added the most tender solicitude about her not taking cold, about her place in the chamber, and her covering when going abroad, etc., etc. After their departure, the whole family they had left, excepting one, were two or three days expatiating on the beauty of his behavior. One lady in particular said at last, “Oh! how happy a married woman have I seen.” The single dissenter, who was an elderly woman, then said, “Well; you may be right; but I am of a different opinion, I do not like so perfect and finished a ceremonial between persons who have been married five or six years at least I observed that he did everything that he ought to have done, and likewise that she received his civilities with much dignity and good manners, but with great gravity. I would rather have seen him less punctual and her more cheerful. If, therefore, that lady is as happy in her heart as you suppose, I am mistaken; that is all. But if I were to make a bet upon it, I would bet as much upon the tradesman and his wife, according to the common description, walking to church, the one three or four yards before the other, and never looking back.” What did time discover? That nobleman and his lady parted within two years, and never reunited.

Let me now establish my maxim, that it is not the fine qualities of both or either party that will insure happiness, but that the one be suitable to the other. By their being suitable, is not to be understood their being both of the same turn; but that the defects of the one be supplied or submitted to by some correspondent quality of the other. I think I have seen many instances, in which gravity, severity, and even moroseness in a husband, where there has been virtue at bottom, has been so tempered with meekness, gentleness and compliance in the wife, as has produced real and lasting comfort to both. I have also seen some instances, in which sourness, and want of female softness in a woman, has been so happily compensated by easiness and good humor in a husband, that no appearance of wrangling or hatred was to be seen in a whole life. I have seen multitudes of instances, in which vulgarity, and even liberal freedom, not far from brutality, in a husband, has been borne with perfect patience and serenity by a wife, who, by long custom, had become, as it were, insensible of the impropriety, and yet never inattentive to her own behavior.