Charlotte Temple

Defining Virtue in Colonial America

The concept of virtue in colonial America was a multi-faceted patchwork of varied attributes and values. Its definition was complex and included a range of expectations from primarily women, who were perceived as the weak point in the social order of the new republic. Society’s most virtuous women were sympathetic, pure, innocent, compliant, domestic, graceful, emotional and poised, along with a number of additional traits. Virtue was instilled in women during this time through a variety of cultural mechanisms, including literature, paintings and domestic creations such as samplers.

One of the more explicit pronouncements of the importance of virtue to the new republic was Susanna Rowson’s cautionary and sentimental novel, Charlotte Temple. Subtitled “A Tale of Truth,” Rowson prefaced her work with an assertion that the fictitious story was “not merely an effusion of fancy” but rather a real life issue facing her respective society. Rowson saw her own role in the development of virtue in young women as extremely important. She claims to provide the “service” to “direct” young women “through the various and unexpected evils that attend [them] in their first entrance into life.”

Throughout the novel, Rowson presents the concept of...

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