CAN A HUSBAND OPEN HIS WIFE'S LETTERS?

by Charles Dudley Warner

Can a husband open his wife's letters? That would depend, many would say, upon what kind of a husband he is. But it cannot be put aside in that flippant manner, for it is a legal right that is in question, and it has recently been decided in a Paris tribunal that the husband has the, right to open the letters addressed to his wife. Of course in America an appeal would instantly be taken from this decision, and perhaps by husbands themselves; for in this world rights are becoming so impartially distributed that this privilege granted to the husband might at once be extended to the wife, and she would read all his business correspondence, and his business is sometimes various and complicated. The Paris decision must be based upon the familiar formula that man and wife are one, and that that one is the husband. If a man has the right to read all the letters written to his wife, being his property by reason of his ownership of her, why may he not have a legal right to know all that is said to her? The question is not whether a wife ought to receive letters that her husband may not read, or listen to talk that he may not hear, but whether he has a sort of lordship that gives him privileges which she does not enjoy. In our modern notion of marriage, which is getting itself expressed in statute law, marriage is supposed to rest on mutual trust and mutual rights. In theory the husband and wife are still one, and there can nothing come into the life of one that is not shared by the other; in fact, if the marriage is perfect and the trust absolute, the personality of each is respected by the other, and each is freely the judge of what shall be contributed to the common confidence; and if there are any concealments, it is well believed that they are for the mutual good. If every one were as perfect in the marriage relation as those who are reading these lines, the question of the wife's letters would never arise. The man, trusting his wife, would not care to pry into any little secrets his wife might have, or bother himself about her correspondence; he would know, indeed, that if he had lost her real affection, a surveillance of her letters could not restore it.

Perhaps it is a modern notion that marriage is a union of trust and not of suspicion, of expectation of faithfulness the more there is freedom. At any rate, the tendency, notwithstanding the French decision, is away from the common-law suspicion and tyranny towards a higher trust in an enlarged freedom. And it is certain that the rights cannot all be on one side and the duties on the other. If the husband legally may compel his wife to show him her letters, the courts will before long grant the same privilege to the wife. But, without pressing this point, we hold strongly to the sacredness of correspondence. The letters one receives are in one sense not his own. They contain the confessions of another soul, the confidences of another mind, that would be rudely treated if given any sort of publicity. And while husband and wife are one to each other, they are two in the eyes of other people, and it may well happen that a friend will desire to impart something to a discreet woman which she would not intrust to the babbling husband of that woman. Every life must have its own privacy and its own place of retirement. The letter is of all things the most personal and intimate thing. Its bloom is gone when another eye sees it before the one for which it was intended. Its aroma all escapes when it is first opened by another person. One might as well wear second-hand clothing as get a second-hand letter. Here, then, is a sacred right that ought to be respected, and can be respected without any injury to domestic life. The habit in some families for the members of it to show each other's letters is a most disenchanting one. It is just in the family, between persons most intimate, that these delicacies of consideration for the privacy of each ought to be most respected. No one can estimate probably how much of the refinement, of the delicacy of feeling, has been lost to the world by the introduction of the postal-card. Anything written on a postal-card has no personality; it is banal, and has as little power of charming any one who receives it as an advertisement in the newspaper. It is not simply the cheapness of the communication that is vulgar, but the publicity of it. One may have perhaps only a cent's worth of affection to send, but it seems worth much more when enclosed in an envelope. We have no doubt, then, that on general principles the French decision is a mistake, and that it tends rather to vulgarize than to retain the purity and delicacy of the marriage relation. And the judges, so long even as men only occupy the bench, will no doubt reverse it when the logical march of events forces upon them the question whether the wife may open her husband's letters.