Love Letters in the 18th Century
by Kate McGowan, Museum Educator
“Now Letter-Writing is, to me, the most agreable Amusement and Writing to you the most entertaining and Agreable of all Letter-Writing” —John Adams to Abigail Smith, April 12th 1764
Were your Valentines this year a bit… uninspired? Are you tired of the endless stream of stale and saccharine sentiments that line the shelves of every stationery store? Do you shudder to think of sending yet another card to “my hubby” and sigh to see texts proclaiming “ay bb ily”? Fear not, dear reader—we have compiled some advice for taking your Valentine skills to the next level—inspired by the greats of the 18th century.
Though the art of the love letter is generally associated with the Romantic and Victorian eras, the earliest known love letters actually date back to over 5,000 years ago, and are probably as old as letter writing itself. In the 18th century, as more people were able to read and write, letter writing flourished, and became an essential part of both public and private life. In a society where a large number of people had no formal education, imitating the letter-writing style of learned gentlemen was challenging for many country farmers—we can’t all be Thomas Jefferson, after all. Because of this, style guides to letter writing—like an 18th century Letter Writing for Dummies—were extremely popular. These books provided tips on grammar, tone, and formatting, and would frequently include sample letters for budding epistolarians to imitate. One such book, Letters Written to and for Particular Friends (the full title, in typical 18th century fashion, is far too long to print here) by the novelist Samuel Richardson, offers the following advice on love letters:
“With regard to the Letters of Courtship…they should have their Foundation laid in common Sense, and a manly Sincerity, and in a Word, be such as a prudent Woman need not blush to receive, nor a discreet man be ashamed to look back upon…”
Surely there was nothing more enticing to the 18th century lover than prudence and discretion.
But perhaps you do not have time to read through the hundreds of sample letters in a long out-of-print book! Worry not! Here below are a few romantic lines from the great letter-writers of the day, that you can use to inspire your next romantic missive.
“I hope to hold you in my arms before long, when I shall lavish upon you a million kisses, burning as the equatorial sun” —Napoleon to Josephine, Spring 1797 “should I draw you the picture of my Heart, it would be what I hope you still would Love; tho it containd nothing New; the early possession you obtained there; and the absolute power you have ever mantaind over it; leaves not the smallest space unoccupied” —Abigail to John Adams, December 23rd 1782
The Adamses wrote thousands of letters to each other over the course of their courtship, engagement, and marriage—so it’s safe to say we can all step it up.
“You engross my thoughts too intirely to allow me to think of any thing else—you not only employ my mind all day; but you intrude upon my sleep. I meet you in every dream—and when I wake I cannot close my eyes again for ruminating on your sweetness.” —Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler, October 5th 1780
Alex and Elizabeth met and got engaged while he was an aide to George Washington in Morristown during the winter of 1779–80, and were married the following December.
And if you’re simply not one for flowery language, here’s a short and sweet line from one of the only surviving letters between George and Martha Washington:
“I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time or distance can change”—June 23rd 1775