From The Young Wife
William A. Alcott
Boston: George W. Light, 1838



  Mode of female influence on the husband Mr. Flint's encomium. Examples of female influence. Wife of Jonathan Edwards—of Sir James Mackintosh. True position of woman in society. Serious error of some modern writers. A caution. Making haste to be rich. A species of mania. Its extent and evils. How the young wife is concerned with it. What she can do to remove it. Agur's prayer—seldom used in modern times. Particular modes of female influence. Office seeking. How to dissuade from it. Exposures to intemperance. Female consistency. Female piety. Its effects on the husband—compared with amiableness and beauty. Apparent objection to the writer's views. Woman's prerogative.

  EVERY wife has it in her power to make her husband either better or worse. This result is accomplished, not merely by giving advice, nor by advice and instruction alone. Both these have their influence; and as means of improvement, should not be neglected. But it is by the general tone and spirit of her conversation, as manifesting the temper and disposition of the heart, that she makes the most abiding impressions. These are


modifying his character daily and hourly; sometimes even when absent. The thought of what a wife wishes or expects, especially when a letter or paper is occasionally received from her or from some member of the family, is silently and perhaps unconsciously changing a husband's character.

  So obvious is this, that it has become a matter of common observation. Every one is ready to observe the change produced in a husband by a second marriage. Now is it probable that this change is greater than that which was produced in him at the first marriage, except that in the second case it is less expected, and there are more interested observers? And yet it is so great as to have led to the very general belief that step-mothers have an uncommon—I was going to say a sort of magic—influence.

  It is by no means denied that the influence, in the matrimonial state, is reciprocal. No doubt it is. But I am not writing now for husbands, directly. Besides, however great may be the changes wrought in the wife by the husband, those which are wrought in the latter by the wife are frequently more surprising as well as more permanent.

  But if it be true that woman is thus silently changing the current of man's affections, and the tenor of his thoughts and habits, how important


that she should be well taught! How worthy of consideration the claims which have been urged in the preceding pages, and the motives which I have endeavored to present for her improvement! And how important—nay, how just—in this point of view, was the remark of Mr. Flint, in one of the numbers of the Western Review—"If this world," said be, " is ever to become a better and a happier world, woman, properly educated and truly wise enough to exert it aright, must be the original mover in the great work."

  "I tremble for the man who does not tremble for himself," was once said in reference to the temptations which exist in this country of abundance, to become intemperate. In like manner, I tremble for the woman who, in view of the nature and extent of her influence on man—and primarily on her husband and family—does not tremble, lest it should not be so good an influence as it ought to be—such, indeed, as she may wish a thousand ages hence it had been. It is truly a solemn subject and I envy not those who can make light of it. They will not make light of it when standing by the bed of death, or when their own hour of dissolution has arrived. They will not make light of it when they stand in the judgment, or when they come to inhabit eternity.


  It has been said of the wife of Jonathan Edwards, that by enabling him to put forth his powers unembarrassed, she conferred a greater benefit upon mankind, than all the female public characters that ever lived or ever will live. A similar remark might be applied to the mother of almost every great and good man. Woman's true greatness consists, so it seems to me, in rendering others useful, rather than in being directly useful herself. Or, in other words, it is less her office to be seen and known in society, than to make others seen and known, and their influence felt.

  I might give numerous examples and illustrations of the principle I am endeavoring to sustain both in this country and elsewhere. I might speak of the mother and the wife of Washington, of the mother of Dwight, Franklin, Wilberforce, Whitefield, Timothy, and hundreds of others; for it was by the exercise of the duties not only of the mother, but of the wife, that these illustrious characters were brought forth to the world. But I will confine myself to a single instance; and that one in which the influence upon the husband was direct.

  The case to which I refer, is that of Sir James Mackintosh, whose fame as a jurist, a statesman and a writer is well known, not only in Europe and America, but in India ; and whose efforts in


the cause of science and humanity have rarely been equalled. Few men have done more, in the progress of a long life, than he; and few have, at any rate, been more distinguished for extensive learning, large views, and liberal principles, in law, politics and philosophy; but especially in his favorite department of the law. It was he of whom Sir Walter Scott said, on a certain occasion, that he made "the most brilliant speech ever made, at bar or in forum." Yet this great man, if we may believe his own story, owed no small share of his greatness to the assistance and influence of his wife. Of this the following extract from a letter of his to a friend, describing her character, after her decease, will most abundantly prove. The last clause includes, it will be seen, a passing tribute to another person—probably his mother which doubles the value of the extract I have made in exhibiting the influence of two females in the formation of character, instead of but one.

  "Allow me, in justice to her memory, to tell you what she was, and what I owed her. I was guided in my choice only by the blind affection of my youth. I found an intelligent companion, and a tender friend, a prudent monitress, the most faithful of wives, and a mother as tender as children ever had the misfortune to lose. I met a woman who, by the tender management of my


weaknesses, gradually corrected the most pernicious of them. She became prudent from affection; and though of the most generous nature, she was taught frugality and economy by her love for me.

  "During the most critical period of my life, she preserved order in my affairs, from the care of which she relieved me. She gently reclaimed me from dissipation; she propped my weak and irresolute nature; she urged my indolence to all the exertions that have been useful or creditable to me, and she was perpetually at hand to admonish my heedlessness and improvidence. To her I owe whatever I am; to her, whatever I shall be. In her solicitude for my interest, she never for a moment forgot my feelings or my character. Even in her occasional resentments, for which I but too often gave her cause, (would to God I could recall those moments,) she had no sullenness or acrimony. Her feelings were warm and impetuous, but she was placable, tender and constant.

  "Such was she whom I have lost; and I have lost her when her excellent natural sense was rapidly improving, after eight years of struggle and distress had bound us fast to each other—when a knowledge of her worth had refined my youthful love into friendship, before age had deprived it of much of its original ardor. I lost her, alas, (the


choice of my youth and the partner of my misfortunes,) at a moment when I had a prospect of her sharing my better days.

  "The philosophy which I have learnt, only teaches me that virtue and friendship are the greatest of human blessings, and that their loss is irreparable. It aggravates my calamity, instead of consoling me under it. My wounded heart seeks other consolation. Governed by these feelings, which have in every age and region of the world actuated the human mind, I seek relief, and I find it, in the soothing hope and consolatory opinion, that a benevolent wisdom inflicts the chastisements, as well as bestows the enjoyments of human life; that superintending goodness will one day enlighten the darkness which surrounds our nature, and hangs over our prospects; that this dreary and wretched life is not the whole of man; that an animal so sagacious and provident, and capable of such proficiency in science and virtue, is not like the beasts that perish; that there is a dwelling place prepared for the spirits of the just, and that the ways of God will yet be vindicated to man. The sentiments of religion, which were implanted in my mind in my early youth, and which were revived by the awful scenes which I have seen passing before my eyes in the world, are I trust deeply rooted in my heart by this great calamity."


  Who—what wife, especially—can read these paragraphs, without feeling a desire enkindled within her to be distinguished in the world, not so much in her own name as by her influence on her husband and family, and through them on others? She thus becomes not so much the instrument of human amelioration, as the moving agent.

  But a little explanation may be desirable. I am not inculcating Mohammedan or Pagan notions in regard to woman. I still insist on her having a distinct character; and no one is more forward than myself in opposing the idea of merging her own individuality in that of her husband. I insist on her forming for herself a character quite independent of his and a perfect one, too. In becoming a wife, I say again, no individual is to dispossess herself of any trait of character which was hers before. She is still an independent woman, notwithstanding: just as I am none the less an independent man, by becoming a member of some association. My new character and the new duties are superinduced—added to the duties which existed before. In the same way we lose nothing—dispossess ourselves of nothing—when we form new relations. No person is the less a brother, a sister, a child, a neighbor, or a citizen, because he or she has entered into the bonds of


matrimony. New duties are indeed added, and new obligations imposed; but the old ones remain. We have, in effect, so many different characters to sustain; and marriage only adds one—though a very important one—to the number already existing. The wife, in becoming one with her husband, and forming, in one point of view, a new and more perfect character, loses nothing, of necessity, of her individuality; nor does her husband. Nay, more—much more than all this—the latter is, or at least ought to become so much the more perfect by it.

  Perhaps, after all, there is nothing peculiar in the sentiments I have advanced; but as the language was open to a little misconstruction, it was thought desirable to render it as intelligible as possible. The necessity for doing this, seemed to me to be greater, in consequence of the efforts which have been made, for some time past, to encourage woman, either directly or indirectly, to think more of her individual influence, both literary and political.

  I do not know that any direct attempts have been made to disparage woman, as a wife and as a mother, but such has been the tendency of things, indirectly. Hannah More, and Felicia Hemans, and Harriet Martineau, and Miss Somerville are


lauded, not so much because they are excellent wives, mothers, daughters or sisters, as because they are excellent poets, moralists, or mathematicians; and it has been publicly asserted as a blessing to the world, that Hannah More never entered into married life! As if her labors, valuable as they are, would bear, for one moment, a comparison with those of the wife of Jonathan Edwards or James Mackintosh.

  Nor is this all. It is not men alone who have complimented the aspirations of the other sex to literary or political fame. Females themselves are beginning to make claims. "Henceforth," says Miss Martineau, "when men fire at the name of Flora McIvor, let women say—There will be more Floras when women feel that they have political power and duties."

  The truth is, that these characters, however valuable to the world they may be, would be more valuable if more devoted to their appropriate sphere. But has not the custom of lauding to the skies such individuals, while thousands in useful domestic life have been overlooked and forgotten, been one reason why so many young females of the present day have such aversion to the kitchen, and gravely tell us they would almost as soon die as have their hands employed in dish water?


  Having thus expressed my views, in a general way, I may now be allowed to enter into a little more of detail. My object will be to mention a few particulars in which the young wife's influence an her husband will be especially valuable.

  Most men are too much devoted to moneymaking. Nor is this the worst. They are not merely desirous of becoming wealthy, in a reasonable time and in proportion to their own diligent efforts; for were it so, the evil would be more tolerable. But they are in haste to be rich.

  There was a period in the history of our country, especially of the New England division of it, when a few individuals might be found who could join in the prayer of Agur—"Give me neither poverty nor riches." But how strangely are the times altered! Where is now the man who can, from the heart, utter this prayer? Where is he whose prayer is not—I do not say his words, but his real prayer, his desire—Give me riches and give it to me immediately: I cannot wait.

  Once it was only a few individuals in the community who could hope to acquire wealth, unless born to its possession. There were few Solomons or Croesuses. It is even so now, in some parts of the world. The nobles are comparatively few. But what was once the sin of the prince or the tyrant who controlled the community,


is now the sin of nearly every individual composing it. Especially is this true of the community in which we live. The mantle of liberty has indeed descended to us from our fathers; but for what? What, indeed, but that we may use our liberty in making haste to be rich—and in taking every advantage of doing this which the letter of the law, or of public sentiment, which is nearly the same thing, does not positively prohibit?

  Hence the spirit of speculation, which everywhere prevails, and which has even seized on hearts of many who profess to be governed better motives. I fear there are some professing christians who do not hesitate to enter into any of speculation which the public sentiment does not denounce, provided they have a strong hope of filling their pockets by it.

  The following sentiments, from the editor of paper in this city, so well express my own view on this subject, that I have obtained leave to copy them for this place:

  "We do not mean to be understood, in our remarks, as censuring the ordinary exchange of one commodity for another, at a reasonable profit, but that grasping after enormous advances, and profits in trade, by which men are continually making haste to be rich. How variously this unhallowed spirit has developed itself within a few


years past, let the history of those years tell. It is enough to say, that money, lands, houses and merchandize have all been subjected to this unnatural and unholy mode of transfer, until speculation has almost usurped the place of honest trade. Thousands have left a respectable calling, in which they were reasonably prosperous, to embark in speculation; and many of them have been ruined by it. They made haste to be rich.

  "It is a lamentable truth, that professing christians have extensively engaged in this species of gambling. One of the great evils which results from this unholy love of gain, is, that it secularizes the feelings of those engaged in it, and thus becomes an opposing principle of the gospel; the object of which is, to destroy the worldliness of the heart, and make it spiritual and heavenly. This secular spirit is brought into the church; it pervades its councils, and throws its influence over the body of worshipping saints. A few who breathe it, soon bring the feelings and policy of that branch of the church with which they are connected, to a perfect conformity with their own; and a system of worldly wisdom and prudence takes the place of the gospel rule of duty, while faith and humility are trampled in the dust.

  "All the love of God which has shed itself abroad in the hearts of his children, all the mercy


which gathered like a halo around the cross of Christ, all the incentives to hope and gratitude which eternity unfolds, as well as the terrors of the second death itself, have been unavailing to induct men, and even professing christians too, to relinquish their grasp upon earthly things, or banish from their hearts the unhallowed love of gain.

  "What a spectacle is here presented. A community which owes its existence to, and professes to derive its support from certain spiritual truths obsequiously bows itself down to the government of worldly maxims; and meanly submits to be directed by the art and cunning of unsanctified men. But this is, and ever must be the result, when those upon whom are the vows of God, make haste to be rich.

  "The effect is, if possible, worse on individual minds, than on the body of the church. Not only does the watchfulness and anxiety, the bustle and confusion, attendant upon speculation, clash with the peaceful spirit of piety, but the heart thus accustomed to worldliness, becomes indurated with it; and when the effect is once produced, powerful indeed must that influence be, which can soften and mould into the image of God, the petrified soul. With how little weight does the word of the Lord come upon the ear of such a man. Accustomed mostly to instruments conveying property or securing it, the awful truths of the Bible cease to have their own simple, native force upon the mind. Speculation destroys the moral sense; shuts up the avenues of the soul; and encases it in an armor, which is proof against the shafts of spiritual truth.

  "And while it does this, it at the same time takes the christian from his place by the throne, and bears him where his feeble voice cannot reach the Almighty. It shuts up the way to the mercy seat. How can any man confide in Christ, while the fact flashes full in his face, that he walks by sight and not by faith? How can he believe, while he knows he is daily disobeying that command of God—'Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth?' How can he have access to the Father, while he knows his whole life is the opposite of the apostles, who looked not upon the things which are seen, but upon those which are unseen? As the spirit of speculation hinders access to the throne in prayer, and shuts up all the avenues to the soul, how soon does the light of God become extinct in the heart."

  Is it asked how this concerns the young wife? Surely such a question is not necessary. Has she no influence in continuing this lamentable state of things? On the contrary, is it not in her power to extend and promote, or to limit and even


to suppress it, at her option? Has God given her the power to mould the character of her husband almost as she will, and has she no sort of control over his love for making money?

  That it may require a great deal of time to turn the current of thought in a worldly young man—such as most young men are supposed to be, at marriage, and give it a more rational direction, is most true; but that it cannot be done at all, no one will pretend who has the least knowledge of human nature as it is, or of the motives which govern human action. And when I see a man go on from the day of his marriage to the end of life, in one continued series of effort to lay up property, as the principal object worth possessing, and when, above all, I see aged men, like aged trees,

"Strike deeper and cling closer their vile roots,
Still more enamored of this wretched soil,

I cannot forbear to conclude that no effort has been made, worth the name, to prevent such a state of things, and to fear that the mania has possessed not only the husband, but also the wife.

  The last suggestion—suspicion rather—may be revolting to some minds. Female avarice is, I confess, particularly shocking. But such a thing there is, shocking as it may be. There are females, there are wives even, to be found, not a


whit less avaricious than their husbands. For the honor of human nature, however, we may hope their number is not large.

  There is a class of persons in society, who, though they see and feel the enormity, of the evil I have mentioned, do yet, in their ignorance, sustain and encourage it. Nor is their number very small, either. Tell them this, and they will shudder. And yet nothing can be more true, as I shall now endeavor to show.

  These individuals may possibly think they can say, with Agur—Give me neither poverty nor riches. They may suppose they only desire a competence. But their ideas of what constitutes a competence differ greatly from Agur's. Besides, I doubt whether they really believe they could utter—from the heart—his prayer. They probably believe, as is the more general belief, that riches are in themselves a blessing. What they shudder at, is the idea of being so devoted to them as to take wrong or at least unchristian methods to procure them. Against these, they would protest; and against these they may not fail, from time to time, to caution their husbands. They will do it, moreover, in the sincerity of their hearts. They regard an over-anxiety to get or lay up money as not only abhorrent in the sight of God, but absolutely vulgar.


  Such, I say, are their feelings when they contemplate the subject of buying, and selling, and laboring, merely to get gain. That is, in the abstract, they disapprove of avarice altogether, and they do not hesitate to beg their husbands never to fall under its influence.

  Now I hardly need repeat here, what has been more than once insisted on already, that it is not our precepts that form character so much, even in the relation of husband and wife, and parent and child, as our example. It is the spirit which we manifest; the tone of our conversation; the language of our looks, habits and actions.

  A young wife says to her husband—and in sincerity, too, no doubt—I hope you will not enter into any sort of speculation, or run any large risks, like Mr. T. and Gen. L. Do let us be contented with a small income; and if Providence gives us more than we need, we know of charitable uses enough to which we can apply it. I do hope, moreover, you will not make a slave of yourself. After being employed a reasonable number of hours daily, it is your duty—and I need not tell you how much it will contribute to your own happiness, and the happiness of others—to spend the rest of your time with your family—conversing with and instructing them, and occasionally visiting your neighbors.


  But of how little avail is such language, when she seizes on every convenient occasion to speak in the highest terms of Mr. T.'s beautiful house, and furniture, and garden, and grounds, and of his elegant horses and carriages, and convenient help; and contrasts these often with their own? Or when she speaks often of Gen. L.'s industrious habits, commends him for his thrift, and says it is doubtless owing, in part, to the fact that he is constantly in the shop from five o'clock in the morning till nine at night—is not her meaning obvious? Does any husband, who is not an idiot, misunderstand such language? And when it is reiterated from day to day, when it is introduced with greater ease, dwelt upon with greater pleasure, and continued longer than almost any other topic of conversation, must it not have a powerful influence upon him?

  He loves his wife, and loves to see her happy. And though he may disapprove of her devotion to externals, yet he finds her high estimation of them has become inwoven, as it were, in her very constitution; and though he labors zealously to remove it, he finds, to his regret, that early impressions on this subject, as well as on most others, are with very great difficulty effaced.

  Actions, it is said, speak louder than words. A female may show what her inclinations are in


regard to houses, furniture, equipage, servants, food, dress, &c., without saying much about them. Most husbands know enough of the character of their wives to know on what their hearts are set, without the assistance even of language.

  But it is in vain for the wife to say one thing while in her heart she means another. Her counsels, like the foregoing, cannot have a very deep or lasting effect, while the husband perceives, as clearly as he sees the sun at noon-day, that though she thinks she despises wealth, in the abstract, she fondly hankers after that which wealth alone can procure or enable her to use. Is there any doubt in regard to the course of conduct which, under such circumstances, he will pursue?

  Should these thoughts meet the eye of any individual who is thus unconsciously luring her husband along the downward road to misery, and robbing herself and others of the pleasure and advantages of his society in the journey of life, I beg her to stop and reflect before she goes farther. Let her consider, I say, her own present happiness and the happiness of those around her; but what is of still more importance, let her cast a thought forward to the great future, and consider what will be the consequences of this love of possession, not to one or two or half a dozen persons, but to great multitudes, hundreds of ages hence. Let


her, in one word, try to form some correct notion of the nature and extent of human responsibility.

  Not a few young husbands, in a country where all may aspire to the highest offices, will be found on the list of office-seekers. Now advice here may be less necessary to the wife than on most other subjects; and yet who shall say that she is in no danger of falling short of her duty, and even of her own ultimate wishes, in the course she may be led to pursue?

  She does not indeed advise him to seek to be distinguished in this way; for she cares less about state or national affairs, in themselves considered, than we may sometimes suppose. There is certainly something true in the saying of a learned physiologist, that with woman "a man"—her husband especially—"is more than a nation"; by which is meant, not that she is totally regardless of national affairs, but that her husband and his respectability at home are everything to her, comparatively speaking, and the nation only a secondary matter.

  And yet, as a means of attaining to that felicity which they suppose a certain condition in regard to externals will procure, there are not a few excellent women who will not only refrain from discouraging their husbands in the pursuit, but will


even encourage them, at least indirectly, in their efforts at distinction.

  Now let that female who is not only willing but anxious that her husband should obtain an office and a salary, remember that almost all civil offices in this country are very dearly bought. Let her refrain from encouraging what may at best prove a snare—morally—to all who are or may be concerned in the results. Let her not only do this, but let her make every reasonable effort to discourage an inordinate degree of ambition, by turning his thoughts into some other more favorable and useful channel.

  But as I have said in relation to the mania for money-making, so I say in regard to office-seeking—it will be of comparatively little use to talk to a husband against the folly or wickedness of seeking office, while you show, plainly, if it be only by your eye and the tone of your voice, that you are deeply interested in the external circumstances of Mr. B.'s family, since they came into the possession of a salary. You must first purify your own heart; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaketh; and if the heart is inclined to parade, it will not fail to show itself, though you may not go so far as to say a single word on the subject.


  Perhaps your husband is in danger of intemperance, or you fear he is. He stops occasionally at doubtful places, or falls in occasionally with doubtful company. Will you therefore rate or scold him? Can you do more than to make home as agreeable as possible, and allure him to it by your cheerful, sprightly conversation, your love of study, and your fondness for his society in preference to that of all others?

  I have said enough elsewhere of the importance of making your husband's home a happy one—a scene of the purest pleasure and the most exalted improvement. If this point is not gained, remember that nothing is gained. All else goes for nothing, while home is not pleasant, and while one regards it as but doing penance to be there.

  In short, unless you love your husband as you ought, and have caught the spirit of improvement, you will never succeed in finding anything worthy the name of happiness below the sun. But with this love and this spirit, and a good fund of plain common sense, you will not, you cannot fail to be happy. With this, all external circumstances will be pleasant—at least comparatively so. Life will be such as will be likely to secure life's great end; and death will be but the door to a better and more enduring state of happiness.


  I cannot close without saying a few words in regard to one thing of which I may not yet have spoken with sufficient plainness. I allude to personal piety. The desire for improvement must include the desire of being everything which God made us to be, and of rendering others such, or it falls far short of its highest object.

  Is there anything which can ornament female character, whether in the single or the married state, but especially the latter, like deep, heart-felt, practical piety? What like this can make woman, frail as she is, so much like an angel on earth? What, like this, can render the vale of tears she is destined to pass, in any tolerable degree comfortable? Amiableness, in all its forms, is attractive and lovely; especially when accompanied by a well-cultivated and well-balanced mind. Yet what is it without piety?

  The same remarks may be made, and with still greater force, in regard to beauty. This, when accompanied by a refined mind, is almost irresistible. Yet what is it without piety? Dr. Young says that wit without sense is worse than nothing; since it only "hoists more sail to run against a rock." So is it—or rather much worse—with beauty, when alone. It serves but to foster weakness, vanity and pride, and to become a lure to a species of idolatry—the worshipping of self.


  Such, I may again say, is human nature, that without piety its evil qualities are ever ready to break out in their worst shapes. Amiableness has its charms—beauty too is charming—and virtue is above both; but piety excels them all. Piety is like a diamond in the midst of pearls. It is a sun, that enlivens, cheers and warms all around it.

  All that I have thus said would apply to the female in every condition of human life; but it is especially applicable to the wife. It is so in every point of view which concerns herself. It is so, also, in reference to the influence she is to exert upon her husband.

  Is it too much to say, that every wife holds, in this respect, an almost absolute power over her husband? Is it too much to say, that the influence of her example is beyond the power of human calculation? Is it beyond the truth to say, that piety in a young wife, who is truly beloved, is irresistible?

  And yet all husbands, it will be said, are not pious, even though they have pious wives. True; but all husbands do not love their wives. There is much of marrying for other and more ignoble purposes than genuine affection, or even solid esteem.

  There is, however, another consideration. All wives are not pious who seem to be. We must be cautious, therefore, about deciding on the inefficiency


of true piety, when embodied in constant and consistent female example. Have we full evidence that such preaching—where true affection is not a stranger—was ever permanently and successfully resisted during the whole of a long life? On the contrary, do not the numerous examples of reformation which exist where female piety, impressed by consistent example, and recommended by the most tender love, allow us to infer, that, if not absolutely irresistible, it is little short of it?

  Has the influence of woman in the work of human redemption, received the attention which it deserves, even from christians? Her agency in the fall is duly acknowledged, and perhaps duly felt. But is it not the proud prerogative of the pious wife to be as efficient in the work of restoring, as she was in the work of ruining the race? Is she second to any but the christian minister, in the great work of an educator—in the sacred employment of elevating the noble part of man, and directing it to the blissful abodes for which it was originally created?