Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation

By Harrison, Cynthia | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 2002 | Go to article overview
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Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation


Harrison, Cynthia, Journal of Marriage and Family


Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. Nancy E Cott. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2000. 297 pp. ISBN 0-674-- 00320-9. $27.95 (cloth).

In this synthesis of the substantial historical literature about marriage, historian Nancy Cott demonstrates that an institution we have traditionally labeled private has in fact always served public purposes, operating through the apparatus of the state. Marriage laws, in the service of moral, economic, and civic objectives, have shaped and continue to shape gender roles inside the home and out; they control the choice of suitable partners, at times in the past establishing racial barriers and at present determining the (il)legitimacy of samesex unions. In addition, marriage law trenches on the conveyance of citizenship, which affects both nationality and suffrage. Most citizens most of the time accept and therefore confirm legal limits; others resist, making marriage law over time a common site of contest about social mores.

The revolution that separated the United States from Great Britain affected not only international relations and domestic legal systems; marriage theory also incorporated the repudiation of subjection implicit in monarchical governments. American women "consented" to be governed by husbands of their own choosing, although they lost substantial autonomy when they did so. But the American form of marriage reflected the values not only of a democratic republic but also of a Christian nation. During the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, Native Americans, European and Asian immigrants, religious dissidents such as the Mormons, Utopian socialists-all who espoused nonmajoritarian marital practices could not withstand the demands of Congress and of states that families form themselves into the units prescribed by the Christian church. Thus, tribal arrangements, polygamy, "common law" couples, and communities of "free lovers" largely disappeared by 1900, while tolerance of arranged marriages vanished in the twentieth century. "If marriages produced the polity," Cott notes, "then wrongfully joined marriages could be fatal" (p. 155). Choice and consent notwithstanding, Christian marriage doctrine could countenance rules making interracial marriage unacceptable; and if marriage signified state-sanctioned sexual association, laws controlling prostitution and sex outside of marriage (through restrictions on abortion and birth control) represented the other side of the coin-all in the service of a single model of marriage.

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