Tying the knots: the nationalization of wedding rituals in antebellum America Public Deposited

Downloadable Content

Download PDF
Last Modified
  • March 22, 2019
  • O'Neil, Patrick W.
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • As middle-class culture became increasingly influential in the years before the Civil War, the white wedding became a powerful symbol of that culture, embodying both bourgeois, entrepreneurial values and a companionate view of marriage. In their weddings, antebellum Americans expressed their willingness or reluctance to view their relationships through a middle-class lens. Diverse groups of people alternately embraced a bourgeois, companionate identity for their relationships and their communities, or crafted counter-ideologies hearkening back to what many saw as America's more stable, powerful aristocratic and patriarchal past. The weddings of middle-class New Yorkers, wealthy southerners, enslaved African Americans, and Mormon pioneers all reflected these conflicts. New Yorkers centered their weddings around the marrying couple's love for each other, suggesting that marriage was not an economic arrangement but a romantic one. Outside the northeast, however, Americans struggled to comprehend and, often, to counter the growing cultural dominance of the middle class, and crafted ideological and ritual responses. The weddings of southern slaveholders and Mormon separatists both asserted different visions of America as a patriarchal nation, beating back the specter of gender equality with paeans to powerful masculinity. And southern slaveholders imposed their vision of patriarchy on the marriages of slaves, using ritual to undermine blacks' claims to patriarchal man- or womanhood. In exploring these disparate rituals, I offer a vision of an America marked by intense debates over what form its interpersonal relationships, its gender roles, its economy, its spiritual future, and its national identity should take. Understanding these conflicting desires--to partake of the national culture as equals, yet to differentiate themselves as social and political actors--helps illuminate the halting, equivocal paths Americans walked toward sectional division, and toward their eventual accession to middle-class values.
Date of publication
Resource type
Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Watson, Harry L.
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Open access

This work has no parents.