It is commonly believed that women married at a much younger age in colonial America than they do today. This isn’t true as a rule, although there were some that married quite young. Arranged marriages remained quite common, and though some women were promised in marriage while still in their mid-teens, the wedding was usually delayed until a more suitable age was reached. Women were often promised in negotiations which discussed the acquisition of property as part of the marriage, particularly as the class system based on wealth hardened in the colonies.
Among the moneyed class, young men and women were expected to bring wealth, reputation, and real property to a marriage. This posed several problems for men wishing to marry. Property was often handed down to the eldest son, younger brothers often received lesser estates, or smaller amounts of money with which to build their own. But the eldest was beset with difficulties by this system as well, forced to wait for his father to dispense his largesse before bringing a strong negotiating position to the bargaining table with his proposed in-laws.
The system often presented a dilemma to the couple whether they were entering a purely arranged marriage or if there was love involved. Human nature being what it is, frequently one or the other, or both parties to a marriage arranged by the parents, found themselves attracted to parties outside of the arrangement. The situation was rife with potential for what would be termed illicit sexual behavior. Virginia’s George William Fairfax was married to Sally Cary in a marriage arranged by their parents. Sally was the first true love of George Washington, and there is evidence that she reciprocated his feelings. But she remained true to her marriage.
George Washington was considered by Sally’s father to be beneath the class of the Cary’s, as the heir to the Washington family fortune and lands was his older half-brother Lawrence. Such niceties of detail in arranging marriages were common in Virginia among the landed families, and no doubt contributed to the many incidents of dueling which were common as well.
It wasn’t only the man who needed to bring value to the negotiations for marriage. The bride’s family needed to provide a dowry. Upper-class fathers needed to keep their wits about them when their daughters selected a suitor on their own, particularly if the gentleman in question was from another area and relatively unknown, a visitor from England for example. Previously arranged marriages prevented their daughters from being taken by a disreputable son of a broke English nobleman, hiding from debtors in America, hoping to marry into money.