Date of Award

Spring 1997

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Laurel Ulrich


This dissertation explores the intersection between personal letters and published admonitions during the decades following the American Revolution. Based on the analysis of letters and diaries composed between 1776 and 1830 by elite white women situated in the northeast, it reveals the extent to which correspondents appropriated, manipulated, or rejected the vocabulary and messages they discovered in novels, magazines, etiquette manuals, and social experts' pronouncements.

Uncertain about the cultural authority invested in the written word, correspondents self-consciously explored the meaning of writing as they composed their letters. As they wrote about writing, reading, the contrasts between rural and urban living, politics, and refinement, they invoked published rhetoric at the same time that they manipulated that vocabulary to arrive at contrary messages. They echoed denunciations of novels, for example, even as they read, recommended, and praised novels as an important component and nurturer of a polite, virtuous society.

Recent scholarly analyses of women's ideological relationship to the state, assuming the confining or oppressive nature of a private sphere, have focused on the publicly significant political role that women played in their capacity as mothers and wives. Indeed, such figures as Benjamin Rush had insisted that women's reading and writing served only as skills enabling them to raise virtuous citizens. Correspondents such as Elizabeth Porter Phelps, Abigail Brackett Lyman, and Eliza Southgate Bowne, in contrast, explored the possibility of a liberating private sphere marked by reading, writing, and sociability. Rush and others decried this impulse as threatening to the survival of the republic itself.

Analyzing letters as cultural forms reveals that the act of composing letters presented correspondents with broad possibilities of expression. Familiarly tapping a variety of discourses, their letters constituted a middle ground between lived experience and published rhetoric. As a result, their letters demonstrate the complexity of women's political relationship to the state and the ambiguity of the categories of male and female, writing and conversing, rural and urban, public and private.