These days everyone has a strong opinion about marriage, but no one seems to be sure what it is, exactly. Is it a sacramental union? Is it a public recognition of a committed love relationship? Is it a state scheme for distributing health insurance and tax breaks? Or given what two eminent anthropologists writing recently in support of gay marriage in the Washington Post describe as a "startling diversity of socially approved forms of marriage," is the institution too varied to fit into a single, dictionary-neat meaning?
The anthropologists are right about one thing: human beings have come up with almost as many ways of getting hitched as they have languages to tell mother-in-law jokes. Some cultures allow only monogamous marriage; some accept polygamy. In many cultures, the wife moves into her husband's family's home; in others, the husband moves into the wife's; in still others, they get a mortgage and move into their own two-bedroom ranch in Levittown. Though most cultures give husbands the primary responsibility for providing for the children, some make the wife's brother—the baby's uncle—responsible for providing the food and the bow-and-arrow lessons. Some cultures don't allow divorce; some allow divorce but not remarriage; some allow divorce if husbands fork over most of their life savings to the likes of Raoul Felder; and others let a guy say "I divorce you" three times before booting his wife out the door.
This protean diversity is central to today's marriage debate. If marriage is, as these examples suggest, an eminently malleable social construct, why shouldn't society shape it any way it likes, especially by letting gays marry each other?
But beneath all the diversity, marriage has always had a fundamental, universal core that makes gay marriage a non sequitur: it has always governed property and inheritance rights; it has always been the means of establishing paternity, legitimacy, and the rights and responsibilities of parenthood; and because these goals involve bearing and raising children, it has always involved (at least one) man and woman. What's more, among the "startling diversity" of variations that different cultures have elaborated on this fundamental core, our own culture has produced a specifically American ideal of marriage that is inseparable from our vision of free citizenship and is deeply embedded in our history, politics, economics, and culture. Advocates for gay marriage cite the historical evolution of that ideal—which we might call republican marriage—to bolster their case, arguing that gay unions are a natural extension of America's dedication to civil rights and to individual freedom. But a look at that history is enough to cast serious doubt on the advocates' case.
Strange as it seems, America's founding thinkers were as interested in the subject of marriage as any of Fox TV's bachelorettes. Given the political experiment that they were designing, they had good reason, for they understood the basic sociological truth that familial relations both echo and shape the political order. "To the institution of marriage the true origin of society must be traced," James Wilson, a member of the Continental Congress and later a Supreme Court justice, wrote in 1790. Before the Revolutionary War, legal philosophers and statesmen like Wilson filled magazines and speeches with discussions of what kind of marriage would best live up to the principles of the new country. It's not surprising that they zeroed in on one quality in particular: self-government.
The Founders did not sketch their ideas about marriage on a blank slate, of course. They brought to their task a set of traditional Western assumptions about the institution, and these assumptions remained implicit in their new ideal and still resurface in our current discussions. Given that marriage was originally a religious sacrament, the Founders understood that the institution retained, even in their secular republic, an element of spirituality, an assertion that man is something higher than the beasts and more than a merely material being. The ceremony confers a special, human dignity upon our relations. In addition, they understood that marriage is a contract, regulated by the laws and ultimately enforceable by the state, that spells out property relations between the spouses, as well as their inheritance rights and those of their children. Therefore, marriage is intrinsically a government concern.
In addition to these time-honored beliefs, the Founders brought a more modern idea to the matrimonial drafting table. Like many of their educated contemporaries in Western Europe, they had come to think of marriage in a way congruent with emerging ideals of individual liberty and democratic equality. In the old world, marriage was originally a matter of caste, class, or clan. Courtship was closer in spirit to bartering than romance; young people were to be traded off by elders intent on solidifying family ties and merging family fortunes and acres.
By the late eighteenth century, however, Western Europeans were increasingly emphasizing marriage as a love-match between two self-determining individuals. Young people were free to choose for themselves with whom to spend their lives, and love could transcend class barriers to recognize the intrinsic personal worth of the beloved. This is the lesson of the profoundly democratic novels of Samuel Richardson and Charlotte Brontë, in which the drama concerns a rich, well-born master coming to realize that he loves his servant, that she is a character of sterling worth, and that he should marry rather than merely seduce her. In the same vein, the novels of Jane Austen dramatize what she understood was turning into one of life's most momentous, morally fraught decisions. For if the young could freely choose their own spouses, they needed to do so wisely, transcending mere sexual attraction and judging their suitors' worth in the moral rather than economic sense. Even so, at the time of the Founding, these modern ideas were still more theory than practice in Europe, where arranged marriages remained the norm.
The Founders wanted to clear away many of the traditions that had kept these democratic notions from taking firm hold in old Europe. American marriage would reflect American principles of liberty and self-government. Unlike the hordes of serfs, servants, and subjects in other parts of the world, American citizens were going to shape their own lives and determine their country's destiny. Just as citizens would be self-governing in the political realm, they would also choose their spouses freely. According to Nancy F. Cott's Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, the source for much of the history of marriage in America that follows, since the struggle against domination and coercion was the essence of the American nation, the young needed to be free from arranged marriages and the authoritarian fathers who contracted them. As historian Jay Fliegelman has observed, the American Revolution and the new Western seriousness about romantic love, which developed at the same time, both sprang from a heightened valuation of the ideal of self-determination.
Essential as it was, the loving, self-chosen vow was only one ingredient in the recipe for self-government. Self-government also meant citizenly self-reliance. The Founders believed that American citizens should not only be allowed to run their own lives but should be capable of doing so and responsible for doing so. In order to be free from "authority in all its guises," as Jefferson put it, citizens had to be competent, industrious, self-sufficient, and virtuous. All these qualities were to be learned in the republican home: "The foundations of national morality must be laid in private families," John Adams wrote in his diary in 1778.
Here Adams was voicing an up-to-the-minute theory of the republican family. Political thinkers imagined the American family as a factory specifically designed to turn out self-governing citizens—something quite different from what other kinds of families did. They believed that the affectionate ties between spouses led to civic responsibility: marriage based on individual choice would promote trust and equality that could then be projected into public life. "In detaching us from self, [love] accustoms us to attach ourselves the more to others. . . . [T]he lover becomes a husband, a parent, a citizen," a 1791 essay in New-York Magazine put it. In addition, the Founders recognized, the colonists' pioneer past had already made the American family an unusually and dependably self-reliant and industrious unit, just as later, when the nation expanded westward, the frontier family became a byword for rugged and indomitable self-sufficiency.
Most important, republican marriage provided the edifice in which couples would care for and socialize their children to meet the demands of the new political order. If republican marriage celebrated self-government, it also had to pass down its principles to the young; it was supposed to perpetuate as well as to embody the habits of freedom. So whereas in all Western societies, the state concerns itself with fostering the institution of the family because it is the mechanism by which the society reproduces itself, in America that state concern takes on a special urgency, because of child rearing's unique momentousness to the national project.
The small size of American families helped here. As any soccer mom or dad knows, parents with two or three children can invest far more attention in each individual child than those with eight or ten. By the Jacksonian period, the size of American families began to shrink. According to Janet Brodie's Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America, the number of children born to white native-born women decreased 49 percent in the nineteenth century, from an average of seven children in 1800 to 3.6 by 1900.
Demographers usually explain the decline in fertility as the result of improvements in infant mortality rates and a shift away from a strictly agrarian economy, in which large families were an advantage, but it's also likely that republican parents were discovering that preparing children for self-government was a mammoth undertaking, more demanding than socializing children to thrive in more communal societies.
Early republican child-rearing experts emphasized to American parents that they were responsible for creating independent, industrious, and resourceful future citizens. American children should be brought up to be active, observant thinkers. "All the faculties of a child's mind should be cultivated," wrote Lydia Child in Mother's Book; kids should develop "habits of attention and activity of mind."
American theorists also encouraged parents to abandon the demand for absolute, fearful obedience that was a relic of the old world. Children preparing for life in the new country could not remain mere passive subjects within an old-world patriarchal family. Whippings and beatings, commonplace throughout much of the world, were to be used only as a last resort; punishment "should be threatened as seldom as possible, and next as seldom executed as possible," clergyman and child expert Horace Bushnell wrote in 1849. This kinder, gentler discipline was designed to get children to behave virtuously because they had internalized national values, not because they feared either external authority or the shame they would bring on their families.
To hear foreign travelers of the early nineteenth century tell it, the republican couple maintaining the homestead or going to church with its republican offspring was noticeably different—though admittedly, there was a downside. British naval officer and author Captain Frederick Marryat wrote of a scene that he witnessed during a visit to the United States in 1839. He watched a three-year-old named Johnny, whose mother had called him to come in out of the cold. "I won't!" the boy answered. "Come, my sweet, I've something for you," his mother implored. "I won't," Johnny pouted. His father took the more patriarchal approach and ordered his son inside. "I won't," the child insisted yet again. "A sturdy republican!" the father exclaimed, smiling, to the captain, who, being from the old world, was standing aghast.
The Founders probably didn't foresee republican children quite like Johnny, but such "sturdiness" may have been inevitable in families in which the young had some freedom to question authority. Marryat may have been disdainful, but other European observers of the new world, including Alexis de Tocqueville, were impressed by the egalitarian, youthful spirit of the American family, which they contrasted with their own stuffy, patriarchal households. Unlike "the respectful and frigid observances of aristocratic families," Tocqueville observed, democratic families enjoy a "familiar intimacy, which renders authority less absolute. . . . [A] species of equality prevails around the domestic hearth." The new political order was placing unprecedented emphasis on individual rights, personal choice, and equality; the new domestic order appeared to be doing the same.
You won't hear much about this historical background in the current debate over gay marriage, but advocates certainly invoke fragments of the American past in their argument. They frequently compare the current predicament of gays with that of other minorities, particularly African Americans, in the days before they had full rights to marriage. History, they argue, shows us that marriage is a civil right that has expanded over time to include previously marginalized groups; gays now deserve those rights as well. "Throughout the history of Massachusetts, marriage has been in a state of change," a group of historians of marriage, family, and the law asserted in an amicus brief in the case that legalized gay marriage in the state. Gay marriage "represents the logical next step in this court's long tradition of reforming marriage to fit the evolving nature of committed intimate relationships and the rights of the individuals in those relationships." But detaching the "tradition of reforming marriage" from the multifaceted tradition of republican marriage not only starts history around 1968, but it also presents a seriously distorted picture of why the American government is in the marriage business at all.
While gays often invoke the black/homosexual analogy to assert in a general way that anti-homosexual sentiments are as vicious and irrational as racism, gay-marriage advocates use the comparison much more specifically. Their most commonly repeated argument goes like this: denying homosexuals the right to marry whom they wish is little different from denying blacks the right to marry whites, an injustice written into many state law books well into the twentieth century. It was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia, finally ruled that state bans on such intermarriage were a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal-protection clause. "Marriage is one of the basic civil rights of man," Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in his decision, in words that have become a familiar refrain in the current debate. The court rested its decision on one important pillar in the sophisticated architecture of republican marriage: that marriage is a civil contract. If the Fourteenth Amendment protects the right of black citizens to enter into a mortgage agreement or take out a car loan, it certainly protects their right to marry whomever they choose. It is logically inescapable, gay-marriage advocates conclude, that the same goes for homosexuals.
And it would be logical—if a pillar were the same thing as the whole building. That the state has an interest in upholding the civil rights of individuals who want to marry doesn't mean that that's the only interest it has in the institution. The state also has a strong—even a life-and-death—interest in marriage as the environment in which the next generation of its citizens is raised.
An earlier chapter in the history of African-American marriage illustrates this point. After the Civil War, anti-slavery Republicans were alarmed by the promiscuity and rampant fatherlessness among ex-slaves, disastrous consequences of the institution's prohibition against slaves entering into marriage contracts. These abolitionists created the Freedmen's Bureau, in part as a federal marriage initiative: they wanted to encourage ex-slaves to marry and create stable families. Their aim wasn't primarily to ensure the civil right of blacks to enter into contracts of all sorts, including marriage; they believed, above all, that American-style marriage would help ex-slaves become responsible, self-reliant citizens who would rear responsible, self-reliant children. In light of this dual state concern—the rights of the couple and the promotion of self-governing families that would mirror and sustain the republic—the historical analogy between black marriage and gay marriage that the advocates posit makes no sense.
In fact, gay-marriage proponents generally treat children as a distraction from the state's interest in marriage rather than crucial to it. They impatiently insist that history has settled the matter: it has definitively separated child rearing and marriage, demonstrating conclusively that marriage is a changing and elastic institution that can easily accommodate homosexuals. "When a third of children are born out of wedlock, when contraception and abortion are available on demand, when you have single-parent adoption legal in every state," Jonathan Rauch, the author of the recent Gay Marriage, has opined, "the debate is over about detaching marriage from parenthood—indeed was over years ago." Andrew Sullivan, along with Rauch one of the most thoughtful and eloquent advocates writing today, agrees: the argument that marriage has anything to do with children, he says, "fails socially and culturally because in our culture at this time, procreation is not understood to be an essential part of what it is to be married."
But it's worth considering just how recently—and how haphazardly—Americans closed "the debate . . . about detaching marriage from parenthood." For most of American history, republican marriage remained the reigning paradigm: a self-reliant and child-centered couple, who had freely chosen each other in a spirit of equality and mutual affection and who would pass on to their young not just property but also the qualities needed to live in freedom. That reign only came to an end in the late 1960s as divorce laws loosened and Americans began pulling off their wedding rings at record rates.
Divorce is such a conundrum for the nation because it follows directly from American principles even while threatening to subvert them. During the Revolutionary era, marriage theorists understood that a nation that loves liberty had to tolerate some divorce; if it was a matter of principle that you chose to enter into wedlock, it was also a matter of principle that you had to have some way of choosing to get out, at least under some circumstances. A number of early writers—including Thomas Paine, whose problems with Mrs. Paine gave him a personal stake in the issue—urged Americans to take a tolerant approach toward the practice. Still, even though divorce was more accepted in this country than in many parts of the world, it remained rare, a last resort and one that worried people deeply. That was no longer the case by the late 1960s, when squeamishness on the subject evaporated, the marital exit door flew open, and not only the battered and the miserable but also the merely unfulfilled came pouring out.
This shift was a threat to republican marriage for reasons that went beyond a mushrooming population of newly single mothers scraping together funds to pay their rent or their babysitters, while their children trekked across the country to visit Dad every school vacation. The soaring rates of divorce signaled a fundamental transformation in the American idea of marriage. As Americans crowded into the divorce courts, they were casting aside the complex—and demanding—vision of the Founders. Marriage was becoming a minimalist institution; people now thought of it as an intimate relationship between two adults, having little to do with children and nothing to do with propagating the political and moral culture.
This demand for a fuller recognition of the individual rights of spouses who sought divorce, along with the loosening relationship between child rearing and marriage—both necessary precursors for gay marriage—led inexorably to a further development. If marriage was simply a personal relationship between adults and had little to do with child rearing, Americans wondered, then what was the problem with a woman's having a baby if she wasn't wearing a ring? The answer could only be that there was none.
What did the law have to say about this cultural revolution, given the state's interest in protecting marriage as the institution in which children are raised? The courts, in all their wisdom, decided that safeguarding marriage wasn't their job any more. In case after case, judges decreed that marriage was an ordinary civil contract and that marriage and child rearing were legally unconnected. Never mind that American law and policy had always accepted the traditional assumption that marriage laws centered largely on the relationship between generations. That was history. In the 1972 Stanley v. Illinois case, to cite just one of many examples, the Supreme Court decided that custody laws distinguishing wed and unwed fathers were "constitutionally repugnant." Fathers who had never married their child's mother should have the same rights as those who had. More recently, the prestigious American Law Institute recommended that state family law be updated to treat cohabiting parents as virtually identical to married parents in the event of a breakup. Sometimes parents marry; sometimes they don't. Why should the state care?
Many have interpreted these legal innovations as part of the "long tradition of reforming marriage" in America that includes giving wives more rights over their own property as well as the repeal of miscegenation laws. They were no such thing. Unlike the changes in the treatment of blacks and women, which more fully expressed the Founders' ideals, the divorce revolution and the consequent change in thinking about marriage and child rearing represented a hard turn away from the original republican model.
Widespread divorce and illegitimacy fracture into pieces the Founders' ideals of the self-governing family. Republican marriage had been a great experiment to harness a universal family bond into the service of a particular view of human freedom. Every society has some kind of marriage to tie parents and their offspring together, but only the American form of marriage strove to allow individuals the greatest amount of freedom within that tie. Little did the Founders expect that their most treasured ideal, freedom, would eventually be turned against the institution that they most prized for promoting that liberty by nurturing free citizens.
No one knows the personal destruction wrought during this history better than the children who were its victims. For the generation now in its twenties and thirties, the sundering of child rearing and marriage was not part of the musty past; it was a bitter and lived reality. The world they grew up in was a scary, unpredictable place of self-absorbed adults who had a habit of disappearing, only to pop up from time to time with a stranger introduced as a new member of the family.
That's not the world they want for their own children. Few of them are familiar with founding thinkers like James Wilson or John Adams, but they know enough to see that the family life the Founders had in mind was better than the one they endured. Yankelovich Partners found in one poll that almost three-quarters of Gen Xers—that is, adults in their late twenties and thirties—said they'd favor a return to more traditional standards in family life, though only a little over a half of their boomer parents agree. Knowing firsthand what it feels like when your father sits you down at the kitchen table and, unable to look you in the eye, says, "Your mother and I don't love each other any more"—and knowing from personal experience that their own capacity for stable relationships is shaky as a result—this generation questions a regime of drive-through divorces. A 1994 study by the National Opinion Research Center found that Gen Xers were the age group least likely to say that divorce is the best option for troubled couples. Young parents in their twenties and thirties are "nostalgic for the childhood that boomers supposedly had," as American Demographics has put it. "It's informed their model of the perfect, traditional marriage."
So what are we to make of the fact that these mom-and-apple-pie young people tend to be more in favor of gay marriage than their parents and grandparents are? The great irony is that their traditionalism enlarges their sympathy for gays' hunger for ’til-death-do-us-part commitment; after all, that's what's they want, too. Odd as it sounds, gays and the children who grew up in single-parent homes share the experience of standing outside and looking longingly through the window at the peaceful, Norman Rockwell family reading or playing Scrabble in front of the fireplace. Rauch and Sullivan, in particular, have written touchingly of marriage as a solemn, even spiritual, union, a momentous public vow to another person that comes with profound responsibilities and aspires to transcendence. If you add together young people's earnest devotion to marriage and their interest in the civil rights movement (insofar as they have studied any American history at all, it's likely to begin with Rosa Parks and end with Martin Luther King), you have a generation for which gay marriage seems merely commonsensical.
But what the young neo-traditionalists have trouble understanding is that their embrace of the next civil rights revolution, as many of them are inclined to see the fight for gay marriage, is actually at war with their longing for a more stable domestic life. Gay marriage gives an enfeebled institution another injection of the toxin that got it sick in the first place: it reinforces the definition of marriage as a loving, self-determining couple engaging in an ordinary civil contract that has nothing to do with children. That's no way for marriage to get its gravitas back. It is marriage's dedication to child rearing, to a future that projects far beyond the passing feelings of a couple, that has the potential to discipline adult passion. "The gravity of marriage as an institution comes from its demand that love be negotiated through these larger responsibilities [surrounding procreation]," Shelby Steele has written in response to Andrew Sullivan. Ignore those responsibilities and you get, well, you get the marital meltdown that this generation was hoping to transform.
There is another reason to be skeptical about the idea that gay marriage is another step forward in an unbroken history of social progress. In fact, the fraying of the marriage–child rearing bond over the past decades has been a step backward: it has increased poverty and inequality. Too often, single-parent families, whether divorced or never married, are poor—and very much poorer than their two-earner counterparts. Instead of being the self-reliant units the Founders envisioned, too many of them are dependent on a powerful nanny state, either for welfare payments or for determining custody and tracking down child support. And instead of being the self-governing institutions of republican theory, nurturing sturdy, self-governing citizens, too many single-parent families, as many studies have shown, bring up kids who as adults do markedly less well on average in school, career, and marriage than those who grew up in intact two-parent families. As for children of never-married mothers: many of them make up the permanent underclass, and their high rates of crime, school failure, and welfare dependency are everything that the Founders expected the republican family to prevent. That so many of these families are black would make the Reconstruction architects of the Freedmen's Bureau weep.
Think of the past several decades of high rates of divorce and illegitimacy as a kind of natural experiment testing the truth of the Founders' vision. The results are in: if we forget that marriage is both a voluntary union between two loving partners and an arrangement for rearing the next generation of self-reliant citizens, our capacity for self-government weakens.
Alongside the familiar anthropological truth that marriage comes in many forms is another truth you don't hear about so much: different kinds of marriage—not to mention non-marriage—mold different kinds of individuals. The Founders envisioned a very specific sort of institution, one that would nourish a republic of equal, self-governing citizens. The evolution of marriage over the past 40 years has undermined that vision. Gay marriage threatens to sabotage it even further.