Seduction is, most simply, a misleading, in the sense of leading astray. The word was used in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to denote misleadings of various kinds and in various venues: social, political, and personal. Although in the 1600s and early 1700s seduction referred almost exclusively to religious error—being seduced by Satan, for example, or by the "diabolical" Catholic Church—by the 1770s the word was used in secular arenas. In the years leading up to and including the American Revolution, political tracts referred to the "schemes" of Great Britain in terms of seduction. "To the Freeholders, and Freemen, of the City and Province of New York," published in 1769, excoriates those English Lords of Parliament who succumb to the "sordid Seductions of Bribery" to consolidate their own wealth and privilege at the expense of Americans.
In the 1780s and 1790s, with the advent of new "American" novels of seduction, the term became most popularly, and lastingly, associated with the misleading of a woman by a man. Even these novels of intrigue, illegitimate pregnancy, and death, however, have been read by literary critics as metaphors of political power and deception. Of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1747–48), one of the best-known English seduction novels of the eighteenth century, John Adams famously declared, "Democracy is Lovelace and the People are Clarissa"—a claim that puts representative government in the role of the seducer, and the common man in the role of the naive and vulnerable woman. Ideologically speaking, seduction can be said to represent anxieties about actions and emotions uncontained, as opposed to emotions organized around a central, and usually patriarchal, figure (God, parents, the state) who will keep order and balance through rule and hierarchy.
In its popular, interpersonal form, seduction and its dangers represented prevailing turn-of-the-century Anglo-American attitudes about gender. Women were considered the primary victims of seduction because they were deemed more naive, less worldly, and more impressionable than—but just as passionate as—men. Thus in his work of moral philosophy, The Beauties of Sterne (1788), the novelist Laurence Sterne condemned the seducer who, "Though born to protect the fair [sex]," plunges the "yet-untainted mind into a sea of sorrow and repentance" by his "alluring … temptations." In submitting sexually to a man who had no intention of marrying her, the woman sacrificed her peace of mind, her reputation, and her chance for marriage to anyone. As William Paley, the British theologian and philosopher, made clear in his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), these losses were compounded by the "injury" done to family and to the broader community. Under the laws of coverture (which declared all women legally subsumed in, or covered by, the rights of the man who took care of her), a seduced woman's family suffered as they would if "a robbery [had been] committed upon their property by fraud or forgery," while the "public at large" lost the "benefit of the woman's service in her proper place and destination, as a wife and parent." Although seduction clearly and severely upset the social balance of the community, Paley complained, no criminal law provided for a male seducer's punishment beyond "a pecuniary satisfaction to the injured family." Paley's critique became part of a mid-nineteenth-century movement in America to award women the right to sue their seducers.
Although in the mid-nineteenth century the "true" woman was one who was "passionless," self-sacrificing, and morally superior to men, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries women were often depicted as particularly susceptible to the "passions"—to desires rooted in and fueled by one's mental and emotional sensitivity to one's own and others' feelings. Though a potential good in itself, such sensitivity could lead the woman astray when it was manipulated by an artful and conniving man. Speaking from the male point of view, Samuel Johnson, the literary eminence of the second half of the eighteenth century, declared in The Beauties of Johnson (1787) that there is no thought more painful "than the consciousness of having propagated corruption by vitiating principles" in a woman who becomes, in consequence, "blinded … to every beauty, but the paint of pleasure; and deafened … to every call, but the alluring voice of the syrens [sic] of destruction." Johnson's sentiment is echoed in American literature for the next several decades, where novels of seduction depict the woman as equally the victim of male machinations and her own unguarded and powerful emotions.
Following Richardson's lead, the first American novels took seduction as their theme. The subject had political as well as personal connotations: having rebelled against their "Mother Country," England, Americans were now vulnerable to the seductive lure of liberty. Seduction novels, as they have become known, attempted to counter the dangers of unregulated freedom (and their own reputation as novels as being "fanciful" and "frivolous") by inculcating in their readers a serious regard for social responsibility and respect for parental authority. To this end, they proclaimed their own brand of "female education" often couched in melodramatic and sentimental language designed to outspeak the romantic eloquence of the would-be seducer. The first American novel, William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy (1789), and the two most popular novels of the age, Hannah Foster's The Coquette (1794) and Susannah Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1797) all share a basic element of plot—innocent women who are ruined by seduction and who die as a result—and in each of the novels it is the strength of the woman's emotions that lead to her destruction. In Charlotte Temple, the narrator tells us that when Charlotte's secret suitor "earnestly intreat[ed] one more interview," Charlotte's "treacherous heart betrayed her; and, forgetful of its resolution, pleaded the cause of the enemy so powerfully, that Charlotte was unable to resist." Charlotte eventually runs away with her lover, Montraville, breaking her parents' hearts; she becomes pregnant by him and, unwed, dies in childbirth. Charlotte is seduced not only by her lover, the novel consistently suggests, but by her own desire. This, of course, is the essence of seduction: the manipulation, on the seducer's part, of the other's weakness or desire to lead him or her astray. In the early Republic, such vulnerability spelled trouble not only for the woman herself, and her family and her community, but for the nation itself, which relied, both literally and symbolically, on the virtue of its women (particularly mothers). In the wake of revolution, seduction represented an unregulated passion that threatened to unravel the experiment in freedom that was America.
Barker-Benfield, G. J. The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Grossberg, Michael. Governing the Hearth: Law and the Family in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1985.