J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Stamp Act as a Marriage Tax

Genealogists, historians of marriage, and other experts might correct me on this, but in provincial Massachusetts a new couple didn’t obtain a certificate of marriage.

Rather, they got a certificate of their intention to marry from their town clerk, who certified that the engagement had been announced from the pulpit for the requisite fifteen days (three Sundays) beforehand.

Then they could take that paper to the minister or justice of the peace (ministers seem to have become the default choice by the eighteenth century) for the actual marriage.

I looked for examples of certificates of intent to marry from eighteenth-century Massachusetts, and the closest I got, courtesy of Access Genealogy, was the example above from 1806. But hey, it’s signed by William Cooper, who was Boston’s town clerk from 1761 to 1809. So he would have signed the equivalent document in the 1760s.

[To folks at the Massachusetts Historical Society: If my notes are correct, the Willard (Knox) Papers contain the certificate that Cooper filled out for Henry Knox and Lucy Flucker on June 23, 1774. That might make a nice Object of the Month.]

I did find a number of transcriptions from town clerks’ records, showing they didn’t all follow the same linguistic formula in noting down who planned to marry in their towns. Here’s an example from Stoughton:
The Intention of Marriage Betwen Mr. Ezra Morse of Stoughton & Mrs. Susanna Guild of Walpole Entred April ye 13th 1765
From Dover:
October 1st 1786. The intention of marriage between Mr David Fuller Jr of the District of Dover and Miss Sally Gay of Dedham is this day entered with me and a certificate given that the said intention of marriage hath been made public agreeable to law

Joseph Haven District Clerk
The text of a certificate from Westfield:
This may certify that the Intention of Marriage between Mr. Zenas Noble, of Washington, and Mrs. Margaret Granger, of Westfield, hath been published in the manner the Law directs; and their names entered with me fourteen Days previous to the Date.

Westfield, Oct. 24th, 1791
Attt. P. WHITNEY, Town-Clerk.
Some clerks noted when couples registered their intention but never came to pick up their certificates, and were therefore not supposed to have gotten married.

The text of the Stamp Act makes no explicit mention of marriage, but it includes this clause:
For every skin or piece of vellum or parchment, or sheet or piece of paper, on which shall be ingrossed, written, or printed, any appeal, writ of error, writ of dower, Ad quod damnum, certiorari, statute merchant, statute staple, attestation, or certificate, by any officer, or exemplification of any record or proceeding in any court whatsoever within the said colonies and plantations (except appeals, writs of error, certiorari, attestations, certificates, and exemplifications, for or relating to the removal of any proceedings from before a single justice of the peace) a stamp duty of ten shillings.
Evidently the term “certificate, by any officer,” covered certificates of intent to marry. As a result, the Stamp Act put a ten-shilling tax on the legal act of marrying.

TOMORROW: Tax avoidance in 1765.


John L. Smith said...

Is this what historians say got a pregnant "couple" out of church charges of sex out of wedlock? That up to, maybe, thirty percent of women were pregnant at this stage. But by declaring they would marry, they escaped church and social retribution.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, historians have found that for most of the eighteenth century up to 40% of first-time New England brides gave birth within seven months of their marriage—in other words, it's clear they were pregnant when they married.

There's a lot that's still unclear, at least to me (and I've kept my eyes open for answers). Were these couples together for a while and finally got married when they realized they were expecting? Or were they more casual lovers who realized they had to get married for life? What role did bundling play?

The legal requirement to announce one's intentions to marry wasn't related to premarital sex, though, and it didn't excuse the act. The fifteen-day notice was supposed to give the community time to object to a marriage if they knew of a reason it shouldn't take place: other spouses, other lovers, general dissipation, and so on.

Couples who had clearly fornicated before marriage still had to make some sort of confession before being allowed to join their local meeting, and one parent had to join the meeting before a child could be baptized. So even though the social stigma (and criminal penalties) for premarital sex went way down between the 1600s and the 1700s, there was still formal disapproval.