Love is in the...mail: A proposal via letter, 1878

Oct 28th, 78

My dear miss Bessie:
On last Friday and Saturday I looked for a letter from you, & instead of going to Judge Oul’s class yesterday morning I went to the PC & was more than remunerated by yielding to the temptation
Yesterday was a lovely day & the streets were thronged with strangers who have come to attend the Fair
Our church was filled & Dr. Hoge preached a splendid sermon, his subject was “hope,” I think it suited me exactly. And now miss Bessie I am going to write on a matter the solemnity of which is needless to remind a woman of your good sense. For me to write you that I love you is useless for you much be [sic] aware that my attachment for you far exceeds the love that I have for my own life. And will you my dear miss Bessie marry me?
I hoped & fully expected to be able to visit you this week but will be unavoidably detained from doing so, but I sincerely trust the time is near when shall see you & call you my own
Goodnight my dear miss Bessie, & believe me to be yours truly,
Wm. B. Taylor

In this letter, dated October 28, 1878, William “Willie” Barnett Taylor expresses his love and desire for his longtime love, Bessie Boggs. Our collection dates the letters between Taylor and Boggs to as early as January 25, 1878. In the context of these letters, Willie was on an extended trip around the United States. Shortly after this letter was written, he departed for Australia.

The sentimental tone of Willie’s note is characteristic of male correspondence during this era. Rather than this romanticism being perceived as emasculating, “nineteenth-century middle-class men were expected to express intense emotions in their romantic relationships. Tenderhearted feelings were not usually perceived as unmanly or as troublesome when confined to private relationships with women.”1 Willie and Bessie’s letters, written from a distance, fall into a broad category of correspondences from the nineteenth century in which love was preserved over time and space through intense sentimental expression. Women were given frequent affirmation, because it was expected for men to “[explode] with feeling, manifesting as much emotional intensity and range as nineteenth-century women” themselves.2

The concept of marriage had, by the dawn of the 19th century, transformed in a sense from being a logistical, calculated match to being a mutual partnership based on sincere affection. While this is an idea that is taken for granted today, two hundred years ago it symbolized the end of an era, and was regarded by many to be irresponsible and frivolous. Second century Stoic Seneca claimed that “nothing is more impure than to love one’s wife as if she were a mistress.”3 Fifteen hundred years later, John Adams famously declared that the “ideal mate” was characterized by the willingness “to palliate faults and Mistakes, to put the best Construction upon Words and Action, and to forgive Injuries.”4

Those critical of the newfound “love match,” as these men would have been, worried that “the values of free choice and egalitarianism could easily spin out of control. If the choice of a marriage partner was a personal decision, conservatives asked, what would prevent young people, especially women, from choosing unwisely?”5 Questions were raised about how marrying based on love might upset the established institution of marriage, as well as the social structure in which it was formed. In 1774, the British Lady Magazine published the opinion that “‘the idea of matrimony’ was not ‘for men and women to be always taken up with each other’, but ‘to discharge the duties of civil society, to govern their families with prudence and to educate their children with discretion.’”6 The idea that these tasks might be possible within a love-based marriage was yet unproven.

It is unknown whether Willie received permission from Bessie’s father to ask for her hand. And yet it seems that, as early as the nineteenth century, that “courting couples...insisted on the priority of their feelings over all social barriers or familial restraints.”7 Since marriage had become an institution based on happiness and satisfaction, couples insisted--as they still do--that if their family “professes to have [their] happiness at heart,” they would support the union.8 The selection of a wife represented finding a love superior to existing relationships; Lyman Hodge, for example, professed his love in the mid-nineteenth century by declaring that "I love my father, mother and sisters. . .[but I] love you so much more." This independence of will was evident in the reality that “by the 1830s at least, men and women were engaging in courtship, agreeing upon marriage, and only then seeking parental blessings.”9 And while some men observed the formality of obtaining permission from the bride’s parents, it was by no means required, and it became very rare for the groom’s parents to have any say at all.

Coontz argues that the evolution of the home in the 19th century into a proverbial “nest” aroused the swiftly changing roles within marriage. A man’s primary obligation shifted from his birth family to his conjugal family, and consequently, “husband” and “wife” adopted more “sentimental” roles. “Manly virtue” was no longer associated with community or political affairs, but with the “‘private passions’ [of] supporting one’s own family and showing devotion toward one’s wife and children.”10 The quiet adoration and warmth toward one’s mate thus became inherent in what the community might perceive as a virtuous home. And very often, this adoration was expressed over distance and time, through love letters.

From a perusal of their correspondence, it appears that Willie and Bessie married shortly after this letter was written. In 1884, they had a child, Henry Porterfield Taylor. Henry Taylor wrote the introduction to “Military Reminisces of Gen. William R. Boggs,” a memoir by his grandfather, Bessie’s father, a West Point graduate and Confederate general.

Bessie began archiving her family’s documents, many of which are in our collection now. She died on September 1, 1922. Willie died July 8, 1933. Both are buried in Salem Cemetery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

- Stephanie Walrath '12

1 Karen Lystra, Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America (Cary: Oxford University Press, 1992), 139.
2 Ibid, 33.
3 Lawrence Stone, The Past and the Present Revisited (New York: Routledge, 1981), 347.
4 Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History (New York: Penguin Group, 2005), 21.
5 Ibid, 149.
6 Ibid, 150.
7 Lystra, 175.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid, 159.
10 Coontz, 168.

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