Domestic Intimacies: Incest and the Liberal Subject in Nineteenth-Century America

Domestic Intimacies: Incest and the Liberal Subject in Nineteenth-Century America

Domestic Intimacies: Incest and the Liberal Subject in Nineteenth-Century America

Domestic Intimacies: Incest and the Liberal Subject in Nineteenth-Century America


Although it is commonly thought that incest has been taboo throughout history, nineteenth-century Americans evinced a great cultural anxiety that the prohibition was failing. Theologians debated the meaning and limits of biblical proscription, while jurists abandoned such injunctions and invented a new prohibition organized around the nuclear family. Novelists crafted fictional tales of accidental incest resulting from the severed ties between public and private life, while antislavery writers lamented the ramifications of breaking apart enslaved families. Phrenologists and physiologists established reproduction as the primary motivation of the incest prohibition while naturalizing the incestuous eroticism of sentimental family affection. Ethnographers imagined incest as the norm in so-called primitive societies in contrast to modern civilization. In the absence of clear biological or religious limitations, the young republic developed numerous, varied, and contradictory incest prohibitions.

Domestic Intimacies offers a wide-ranging, critical history of incest and its various prohibitions as they were defined throughout the nineteenth century. Historian Brian Connolly argues that at the center of these convergent anxieties and debates lay the idea of the liberal subject: an autonomous individual who acted on his own desires yet was tempered by reason, who enjoyed a life in public yet was expected to find his greatest satisfaction in family and home. Always lurking was the need to exercise personal freedom with restraint; indeed, the valorization of the affectionate family was rooted in its capacity to act as a bulwark against licentiousness. However it was defined, incest was thus not only perceived as a threat to social stability; it also functioned to regulate social relations--within families and between classes as well as among women and men, slaves and free citizens, strangers and friends. Domestic Intimacies overturns conventional histories of American liberalism by placing the fear of incest at the heart of nineteenth-century conflicts over public life and privacy, kinship and individualism, social contracts and personal freedom.


In 1828, in the first edition of his dictionary, Noah Webster defined incest as “the crime of cohabitation or sexual commerce between persons related within the degrees wherein marriage is prohibited by the law of a country.” As definitions go, this one seems rather straightforward. Yet, as far as incest goes, it presents numerous questions. the one thing we think we know about incest is that its prohibition is universal and has been in existence since humans organized themselves into something resembling families. of course, this one thing is an illusion, and Webster’s definition gets at some of the problems with that illusion. First, this particular definition hitched incest to the system of criminal law rather than to biblical injunction. Sec-

Inspires the question: If the prohibition of incest was dependent on nationally bounded legal systems, was it possible that a nation could simply forego the prohibition of incest? Finally, in Webster’s definition the crux of the prohibition was dependent on marriage, yet it was unclear if the prohibition of marriage between near kin was part of incest or something else altogether. What is clear is that, for a universal prohibition that, for several centuries, has been treated as one of the fundamental laws of human culture, Webster, perhaps unwittingly, introduced a great deal of ambiguity.

Perhaps aware of this, perhaps simply trying to cut words, Webster modified the definition in an abridged version of his dictionary in 1839. Gone was the ambiguity; the definition was shorter but more capacious and seemingly universal. Incest was now “cohabitation of persons within prohibited degrees of kindred.” Cohabitation did more work than enumerating sex and marriage had in the original definition. Cohabitation was a legal category in itself but was also frequently used to describe a man and woman living together outside of marriage. Implicit in the term was some . . .

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