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Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, by Nancy F. Cott

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Public Vows: A History of Marriage

Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, by Nancy F. Cott

Opponents of gay marriage rely heavily on the argument that marriage has been defined in a particular way for hundreds and thousands of years; thus, altering the legal definition to include unions between members of the same sex is an unacceptable breach with the past. Such arguments are devoid of historical reality — a better understanding of what marriage has really been like, especially in America, is needed for the debate to move forward.


Title: Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation
Author: Nancy F. Cott
Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 0674003209

• Fascinating history of marriage in America
• Demonstrates how malleable marriage has been in America
• Demonstrates how defense of marriage is really defense of particular social, political orders

• None

• Detailed history of the connections between marriage laws and public policy in America
• Traces how marriage was used to support social policies and vice-versa

Book Review

As a social institution, marriage has existed in a multitude of forms for thousands of years — many more forms, in fact, than just a union between “one man and one woman.” As a legal institution, though, marriage in America has existed for a much shorter period of time and during a historical period that allows for careful study.

In Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, Nancy F. Cott explains the development of marriage in America not just as a legal institution, but also as a legal ideal. Perhaps the most important lesson that we can derive from Cott’s book is that the nature of marriage in America has been incredibly malleable: American political ideals have shaped social and legal expectations about marriage while ideals about marriage itself have in turn helped shape larger political ideals. Because of this, marriage must be understood as a social, legal, and civil institution — it may have religious aspects for some people, but it cannot be treated as a uniquely religious institution without completely ignoring American history.

One thing that has always been common to how marriage has been defined in America is that it should be Christian, monogamous, and consensual. This ideal did not appear randomly and it’s no coincidence that this ideal of marriage paralleled the colonists’ political ideal of what a government should be like: the “more perfect union” described in the Constitution was likened to the “perfect” sort of marriage between a man and a woman.

Because of this, the imposition of narrower forms of monogamy on freed slaves and Native Americans was perceived as being integral to the process of “civilizing” and “Christianizing” them. It was assumed that the political model of America could not survive if alternative models of marriage were given equal status — thus also explaining the vitriolic reactions to the attempts by Mormons to introduce polygamy in the West.

Monogamy was perceived as Christian, civilized, and democratic; polygamy was perceived as heathen, uncivilized, and despotic. The same attitude exists today, as revealed in a comment made by Congressman James M. Talent of Missouri when defending the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act:

Public Vows: A History of Marriage

Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, by Nancy F. Cott

    “...it is an act of hubris to believe that marriage can be infinitely malleable, that it can be pushed and pulled around like silly-putty without destroying its essential stability and what it means to our society, and if marriage goes, then the family goes, and if the family goes, we have none of the decency of ordered liberty which Americans have been brought up to enjoy and to appreciate.”

Thus the so-called “defense” of marriage must be seen as really being a “defense” of a particular social order, a particular political order, where certain types of people are included while others are excluded. Christian activists who oppose gay marriage don’t hide the fact that they connect the nature of marriage with the nature of America’s social order, but it’s not clear that supporters of gay marriage have fully appreciated either the historical roots of this or the social implications.

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