Dear Miss

I know that if I had received a letter like this from my intended husband, I would have canceled the engagement immediately!

Sometime before 1767, John Talcott wrote a letter (or a treatise?) to his future wife Abigail Ledyard. The letter was ten pages long and filled with sage advice, or what he termed “my sentiments on a particular subject.” He credited himself with being a person who valued women for their calming effect on a man’s character and passions, for their ability to polish men’s manners, and for being able to lessen the weight of men’s pains. A man who appreciates women, he explained,

“will pay a proper regard to their persons; but their principal attention, will be employed on the improvement of their understanding. Although their minds, as well as bodies, may seem to be endowed with less firmness, & strength, yet, as their sensations are allowed to be more delicate, so I doubt not, their minds are more susceptible of refined improvement. And since this improvement, is the principal thing to be regarded, in preparing your sex, as well as ours, to act their parts with propriety, in what ever station, they my providentially be placed; it is necessary they should know the means by which it is attained, and the end proposed by it.”

The way to improve one’s mind, he stated, was through conversation, reading and reflection. John then recommended a book of morals written for young ladies by Rev.  Wetenhall Wilkes in 1740. The letter concluded with John’s thoughts concerning the importance of two people sharing the same sentiments, which he assumed he and Abigail did, and he asked for Abigail to respond in kind.

Historians, and others, often fall into the trap of interpreting the past using current values and sensibilities. So what some women today would see as condescending and insulting, Abigail may have found enlightening and encouraging. After all, she did end up marrying him.

This letter came to light as a result of our NHPRC-funded project to catalog our backlog of manuscripts. See our continually growing online catalog at www.chs.org.

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