Cato's Letter No. 58

Letter from a Lady, with an Answer, about Love, Marriage, and Settlements

John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, and "a lady" (Saturday, December 23, 1721)



Though love, abstracted from marriage, is a subject too low for a statesman, a politician, and I might add a philosopher; yet as it relates to that holy state (as our Church is pleased to call it) it is worthy the greatest notice; for though many take upon them to ridicule all lawful and honourable love, and marriage, which crowns and proves it, yet I will venture to affirm, that hardly any person lives a long life without desiring at some part of it to enter into that state: It is like religion, implanted in our natures; and all men have a notion that ’tis the way to happiness, though all do not practise it: The reasons of this want of practise are many; besides the degeneracy of human nature, the imperfections of both sexes make them afraid of so close an affinity; the want of constancy in the male sex, and, above all, the love of money in both, is the greatest scandal and hindrance to this most honourable state in life.

I cannot excuse either sex (though by this time, both from my subject and handling of it, you will guess me to be of the weakest) from this last vice, the love of money; and I might add to it ambition; for it seems to me grown the rule of marriage, there being few alliances contracted of late years, but where this is the chief motive on the man's side, and almost so on the woman's: No wonder the ladies should have catched the vice; for when a woman finds herself slighted for no other want but that of a large fortune, she must needs think it worth purchasing at any rate, and neglect all other merit as useless.

I do not pretend to say that virtue and merit, in our sex, is to be met with in every corner of the streets, as I am too sensible the contrary is; but sure I am it is to be found, and judgment was given to the men in order to distinguish it. But, say your sex, is money then to be despised? Must the contrary be sought? And has a lady less merit for having a large fortune? Not always, but indeed too often; nay, nothing can hinder it but natural good sense and temper, joined to great care taken in the education; without that a superior fortune makes a worse woman, consequently a worse wife.

I was led into this thought, and which occasioned this letter, by a disappointment that a young lady I had a friendship for met with lately, with relation to this subject, which cost her her life.

She was addressed to by a gentleman, whose good sense and agreeableness would, she thought, atone for some natural defects and infirmities, which she had penetration enough to find out in his temper and disposition; among which his love of money was not the least: He was superior to her in fortune; but she was a gentlewoman born, and bred so, and in every respect, but money, his equal: She resolved to suit herself to his humour; and fancied herself cut out to please and make him happy, not out of vanity, but inclination to do so. She had pride, and did not greatly care to be obliged, even by the man whom she loved; but fancied she could save up a fortune to him in a few years, and, with the refusing of presents, and resigning of settlements, atone in great measure for the want of it. He thought it worth while to deceive her for a considerable length of time, for what reason I cannot guess, she being a woman of undoubted character, which he had known for some years before, and all her actions answered: But in short he left her, and that in so abrupt and rude a manner, as made her bear it worse; not shewing the least abatement of his passion the last time he saw her, more than at the first. I wish that he had trusted her with the secret of forsaking her; for I dare say she would have taken it handsomely, and (for his advantage) given him up.

The disappointment met her under an indisposition of body, else I believe she had good sense, reason, and resentment enough, to have got the better of it. But she died, and without reproaching of him, or behaving herself unhandsomely; she said she was inclined to believe that there was a fate in things of that nature, and wished him happier than (she doubted) he deserved.

He is now upon the brink of marriage to a lady, that I dare say he does not like half so well as this lady whom he left for her; but she had more money abundantly, which he does not want; and then, though, as I said before, money is no objection, nor need a woman be sought out that wants it, yet I would not have a man venture to leave a woman for no other reason, lest he (as too probably he may) chance to repent it.

Sir, if you think this subject, or our sex, worthy your notice, we shall be obliged to you; you are an author, I might say it to your face, capable of serving any cause that you undertake; ours is a charitable one: I am out of the question myself, with relation to making my fortune, or it might not have been so proper for me to have started this subject, though obscure; but I have a general love for mankind, and particularly for my own sex; whose cause I commit to you, as into the hands of a most powerful advocate, and (I hope) a willing patron. My sincerity on this subject cannot be doubted, when I most humbly subscribe myself of that sex whose cause I recommend; viz.

A Woman



You will easily believe me, when I acquaint you, that I am not a little proud of the honour you have done me, in thinking me worthy of the correspondence of a lady, to whom nature has shewn herself so indulgent. She seldom leaves her own work imperfect; and therefore I doubt not but she has been propitious to you more ways than one: And I am persuaded, that if you had been the first object of the inconstant Strephon's adoration,' he had never worshipped any false goddess.

I can assure you, madam, you could never have recommended yourself so much to me, or have obliged me more, than in engaging me in this agreeable manner in the cause of helpless innocence, and distressed virtue; and in giving me an opportunity to consider the greater and better half of the world in their nearest and most engaging relation. I am, by profession, a knight-errant: It is my business to right wrongs, and redress injuries; and none more than those done to your tender sex.

It is a subject which employs my softest and most delicate thoughts and inclinations; which I can in nothing gratify so much, as by contributing to the ease and happiness of that sex, to whom we owe most of our own.

That cordial drop heav'n in our cup has thrown,
To make the nauseous draught of life go down;

And to atone for the thousands, ten thousands of evils, to which human condition is subject.

Hercules himself laid down his club, and took up a distaff: And,

————furious Mars,
The only governor and god of wars,
When tir'd with heat and toil, does oft resort
To taste the pleasures of the Paphian court.

I do not therefore depart from my character, or desert my duty, in considering this subject, and attending upon the concerns of the fair: With their cause the cause of liberty is blended; and scarce any man will be much concerned for publick happiness, unless he enjoys domestick: Publick happiness being nothing else but the magistrate's protecting of private men in their property, and their enjoyments. It is certain, that a man's interest, in point of happiness and pleasures, is in no instance so much concerned as in that of marriage; which being the happiest or unhappiest state in the world, must mostly contribute to his happiness or misery.

The beauty, the vigour, the wit, and consequently the preferment of his posterity, do much depend upon the choice of his wife, and possibly upon his inclinations to her, and hers to him. We are very careful of the breed of our horses, of our cocks, and our dogs, and as remarkably neglectful of the education of our children; and yet we dedicate two thirds of our substance to our posterity: For so much is the difference between the purchase of estates of inheritance, and of estates only for our own lives.

Our wealth does also depend in a great measure upon domestick sympathy and concord; and it is a true proverb, that A man must ask leave of his wfe to be rich: So great a share of his substance and prosperity must remain in her power, and at her discretion, and under her management, that if he would thrive and be happy himself, he must make her so.

In order to this, he ought to choose one whose temper, good sense, and agreeableness, shall make him find his pleasure in obliging her; and by constancy and endearing actions make her wholly his own, and to do all in her power to oblige him. No man can live in a constant state of hypocrisy in his own family; but if he has distastes, they will certainly break out; or at least be found out by one who is always about him, and whose constant business it is to observe him, and his humours and affections. And therefore it is his best and only way to find out such a one as he need not counterfeit a kindness to.

In all my observation, a good husband rarely misses to make a good wife. The hearts of women are naturally so tender, their passions towards their husbands so strong, their happiness and the respect which they meet with in the world are so much owing to their husbands, that we seldom find a married woman who will not, with a little real, and often with but a seeming kindness, do whatever a prudent husband will desire of her; and often, to oblige him, more than he desires. And what can be more barbarous, than to use one ill who throws herself into his power, and depends upon his protection; who gives up all that she has to his mercy, and receives it afterwards at his pleasure?

It is miserable folly, to put yourself in a circumstance of being uneasy in your own house, which ought to be a retreat from all the ruffles and disappointments that you meet with elsewhere: In consequence of this, you must seek your pleasures abroad at great expence, and the hazard of your health, and to the neglect of your affairs. Your wife too, when she finds herself neglected by one in whom she had fixed her whole happiness, will not bear the place and mansion of her misery, but will fall into a despondency, and an indifference to your interest; and will be apt to look out in her turn for pleasures abroad, when she can have none at home. Women for the most part place their felicity in their husbands, and in their families; and generally pursue those views, till the unkindness, neglect, and folly of their husbands render them impracticable.

Whatever excuse there may be for men overrun with debts, or otherwise very necessitous, to aim only at money in marriage, and thereby to throw themselves into a miserable and nauseous imprisonment for life, to prevent falling into one but little worse; I cannot find one tolerable reason in nature, why any man in easy circumstances, and who does not want the common necessaries of life, should purchase the superfluities at so dear a price. But it is stupendous that men of figure and fortune, who have in their power the means of enjoying not only the conveniencies, but the luxury and vices of life (if such can be called enjoyments), should yet barter away all their happiness for a little seeming additional wealth, which for the most part produces real poverty.

It is certain, that ten men of birth and estates have been undone by marrying great fortunes, for one who has been enriched by it. Most men pay twenty per cent for such portions, as long as they have any thing to pay. Ten thousand pounds additional fortune, when laid out in land, will not produce three hundred pounds a year clear; which sum will scarce maintain the tea-table, and keep the supernumerary baubles in repair; and it will cost as much more to shew them. Besides, when the usual presents are made, and an expensive marriage is solemnized, gaudy clothes and equipage are bought, and perhaps a London house furnished; a considerable part of this portion will be disbursed, and the forlorn hero of this shewy, noisy farce, will discover, too late, how much more eligible it had been to have married a lady well born, of a discreet, modest, and frugal education, and an agreeable person, with less money, than a haughty dame with all her quality airs about her, or Mr. Thimbleman's daughter, though bedecked with as many trinkets as Tallboy or Jerry Blackacre upon the stage.

But before we can complete this account, we must balance what must be given in lieu of this lady's wealth, besides the entire loss of conjugal and domestick happiness. It is truly said, that gold may be bought too dear; and I may safely say, that the dearest purchase now in England, is a wife with a great fortune, not excepting that of South-Sea stock last year.

For every thousand pounds the lady brings, she must have a hundred pounds a year, at least during her own life, and often a rent-charge, which alone is worth the purchase money which she brings, if she outlives her husband; and then she brings nothing towards the issue, which, modestly speaking, are as much hers as her husband's; and it is certain, that during her living with him, she spends more than the interest of it: For (besides her private expence) the gay furniture, the rich beds, the China ware, the tea- table, the visiting-rooms, rich coaches, &c. must be chiefly placed to her account; and she shares equally in the table expence, and in that of the children and gardens: And yet, over and above all this, a man must settle the remainder of his estate and substance out of his own power, and entail it upon whatever heir chance and his wife bring him; perhaps upon an ungrateful and disobedient one, made so by his independency upon his father; often upon a foolish and unimprovable one; sometimes, perhaps, upon a spurious one.

I do not complain of this usual method of settlement, as thinking it reasonable that any man should give a large sum of money in dowry with his daughter, without taking proper precautions to provide for her and his own posterity: But I censure the present great abuse of giving and demanding such fortunes, which have inverted the very ends of marriage, and made wives independent on their husbands, and sons on their fathers; fortunes, which make men bargain for their wives, as they would for cattle; and, instead of creating conjugal friendship and affection, and all sorts of domestick happiness, have produced nothing but strife, aversion, and contention, where there ought to be perfect sympathy and unanimity; and have brought into the world a race of monkeys and baboons, instead of creatures with human shape and souls.

Why should men of fortune and understanding bring themselves, without any motive from reason or interest, into these unhappy circumstances? Why should any man, without any consideration, at least any valuable consideration, divest himself of the greatest part of the property of his own estate? Why make himself only tenant for life, when he is in possession of an inheritance; and render himself by that means unable to provide against the many emergencies of life? Why subject himself to the insolence of an ungrateful heir, or be forced to leave it to an unworthy one? Why be obliged to bear the caprices and dishonour of a wanton and peevish wife, perhaps made so by his neglect, arising from his aversion, the ordinary effect of marriage against inclination? when he might have chosen one every way suited to the same; and, by contenting himself with less fortune, have kept the greatest part of his estate in his own power, and with it the further means of obliging her, and of making her future fortune and expectations to depend upon her own conduct, complaisance, and affectionate behaviour?


You have given me, madam, a very pregnant and affecting instance of a gentleman, who, made false by avarice, has lost, and wickedly lost, a virtuous, prudent, and fond wife, while he sought money more than merit; and cruelly broke his faith, and with it a tender heart, for the infamous sake of lucre; which may deservedly prove a canker in his soul and his substance, and bring him a lady with qualities proper to revenge the other's just quarrel and barbarous wrongs. And I, on my part, can give you an instance of a gentleman of great fortune and figure, who, by acting according to the former wiser rules, has made himself happy in an amiable, discreet, and observant lady, and enjoys with her all the blessings of mutual confidence and tender affection. He is complaisant without art, and she without fear. I am,


With perfect respect,
your most humble
and most obedient servant,


I have, in several of my late letters, observed some slips that have escaped from the pen of the great and learned Dr. Prideaux; but as I have done this with no design of blemishing a character which cannot be blemished, I think myself obliged to own once more, his great merit, the service done by him to man- kind, the honour to his country, and the pleasure and information which I in particular have received from his worthy labours.

It is possible, that out of detestation to principles which subvert and tear up by the roots all liberty and civil happiness, I may have used some warm expressions against those that maintain them. Such expressions therefore can be applied only to those who have been ever the avowed and active enemies of every thing lovely, valuable, or praiseworthy amongst men. But as to Dr. Prideaux, however he is fallen into prejudice, perhaps early imbibed, and not since examined by him with his usual accuracy; or however he might intend to serve a pious cause with adventitious helps and precarious supports, which it wanted not: Certain it is, from the whole course of his excellent performance, that he had sincerely at heart the interest of true religion and liberty. A spirit of virtue, piety, good sense, and integrity, and an aversion to oppression, cruelty, and tyranny, shine through his whole history, and animate the same; and neither he nor his history can be too much commended.

But the Doctor is an eminent instance, how little any man ought to be guided by the mere authority of another; since one of the greatest and worthiest men living is capable of falling into such obvious errors. From the greatness of his name and credit alone I was led to these animadversions, and with reluctance I made them. Falcons do not prey upon flies. Other writers, whose characters add no weight to their mistakes, are safe from any censure of mine. For this reason I shall not trouble myself with the party-falsehoods, and pious ribaldry, and blunders, of a modern voluminous writer of English history. His contract and dialogue between Oliver Cromwell and the Devil, is a harmless piece of history, and as entertaining as the rest.

T. I am, &c.

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