When President Bush last week pronounced marriage "the most fundamental institution of civilization," he was in good company--at least rhetorically. That link has been proclaimed every time marriage has gone through changes, as it has frequently done throughout history.
The Roman statesman Cicero held that "the primary bond of society is marriage," suggesting an immutable institution. In fact, it has always been shaped by social currents, sometimes progressive, but often not.
Through the ages, the institution of marriage has been unfair to women, has banned the union of people of different races or religions, and has typically been far more concerned with property rights than romantic love--a very modern notion.
Now, as gay marriage has ballooned into a major issue of the presidential campaign, historians and voters alike are reflecting on an institution that truly is a foundation stone of society--for better and for worse.
"Since the 19th Century, people have treated family and marriage as the litmus test of society," said Michael Grossberg, an Indiana University professor who submitted a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of several historians to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, whose ruling in favor of gay marriage triggered the national debate.
"Those who fear social change see any change in marriage and the family as a disaster," Grossberg said.
Ironically, the most enduring aspects of marriage tend to be the very opposite of those qualities its most vocal defenders associate with it. Romance, companionship, the warmth of family life, were rarely connected with marriage until recent times. In the beginning, it was chiefly an economic institution.
An engagement party in ancient Greece was a commercial transaction, said Marilyn Yalom in "A History of the Wife." "It was essentially an oral contract, made between the man who gave the woman in marriage--usually her father--and the bridegroom," Yalom wrote. "The bride was not present."
In this country, the conception of marriage as a transaction between father-in-law and son-in-law meant a woman went from being economically dependent on her father to the same status vis-a-vis her husband. Under a legal theory called "coverture," the married pair became one--the husband.
American wives couldn't own property--even that which they inherited from their parents--until various states gave them the right between 1839 and 1887. Before then, even the wages a working wife earned belonged not to her but her husband.
Husbands could physically discipline their wives, as long as they used what was euphemistically called "moderate correction." If that, or anything else, prompted women to leave home, their husbands would advertise the fact in newspapers, right alongside the ads Southern plantation owners placed for the return of runaway slaves.
'A state of slavery'
The U.S. Supreme Court was loath to tamper with that tradition of the man as lord and master of the household as late as 1911, when it rejected the idea that a wife could sue an abusive husband. The justices called the very thought "revolutionary," "radical and far reaching."
Little wonder then, that the 19th Century abolitionist and feminist leader Lucy Stone said, "Marriage is to woman a state of slavery."
And although clerics and statesmen praised marriage's civilizing virtues, the institution wasn't always available to all Americans.
Black Americans couldn't be legally married in the antebellum South. The idea was seen as threatening to slavery, upon which the region's economy depended. Even long after the Civil War, blacks and whites couldn't marry each other in many states. In the Western states, where anti-immigrant fever was high, Asians and whites were barred from marrying each other.
In 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court finally voided those "anti-miscegenation" statutes, as they were called, 16 states still had them on their books. Even then, South Carolina didn't remove its statute until 1999.
America's marriage laws and traditions had a long prehistory by the time they came to this country, observed Harvard historian Nancy Cott, author of "Public Vows," a study of marriage and public policy in American history. Ultimately, they trace to Christian roots.
When the Roman Empire became Christian in the 4th Century, the church took charge of marriage. Chief among the rules it set for the institution was that marriage had to be for life--though earlier cultures had provisions for divorce--and monogamous.
Curiously, that later rule finds no sanction in the Old Testament, a text from which Christianity derives its moral code. The Jewish patriarchs and kings were polygamous--Solomon alone is said to have had 700 wives. Sephardic Jews, who lived in Arabic countries, continued to practice polygamy until well into the Middle Ages. Eventually the "ketubah," Judaism's wedding contract, held a groom to taking an oath that: "he shall not marry another while he is married to the present bride."
Christianity's victory also put homosexuality beyond the moral pale.
The Greeks, the ultimate founders of our civilization, didn't have the same qualms about same-sex relationships, though historians are divided over the extent of homosexuality in ancient Greece.
Richard Saller, a University of Chicago historian, observes that in the ancient Greek city of Thebes, homosexual unions were considered not a danger to the state, but its last line of defense. The elite force of the Thebean army was the Sacred Band, a battalion of 150 gay couples, never beaten until it fought to the last man against the Macedonians. After the battle, King Philip of Macedon came to where their bodies lay, reported the ancient writer Plutarch.
"Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything that was base," Philip said.
The Roman Empire flourished for hundreds of years after a notable pair of high-society same-sex marriages. The Emperor Nero fell madly in love with a boy named Sporus.
"He married him with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and a bridal veil, took him to his house attended by a great throng, and treated him as his wife," noted the ancient biographer Suetonius, who also reported that Nero tied the knot a second time with a male marriage partner.
Christianity's marriage rules passed into English common law and from that into the legal systems of the early United States. Thus, Christian doctrine was embedded into American law, despite the constitutional provision for separation of church and state, Cott observed.
The leading 19th Century treatise on the U.S. law of marriage defined it as: "the civil status of one man and one woman united in law for life."
Cott noted that in the 19th Century, Western colonialists and missionaries went around the world imposing monogamy on cultures where it was not native. The U.S. did the same, forcing Native Americans to give up their traditions of multiple marriage. Fear of Mormon polygamy held up the admission of Utah to the union.
Birth control made an impact
Since the era of World War II, Americans' conception of marriage has been rapidly changing, said Princeton University historian Hendrik Hartog. Women entered the workforce, making them less dependent on men. Birth control made it practical to separate sex and marriage from procreation. Romantic love, a theme that had been acquiring emotional power for a century, became more the norm.
"Marriage became identified with individual human happiness," said Hartog, author of "Man and Wife in America." "Social conservatives haven't been happy with that shift, but they've lost at every stage of the game."
Among those stages, he said, were divorce-law reforms that made it possible for couples to end unhappy marriages and, should the parties wish, try again for happiness with another partner.
Hartog thinks the gay community's push for same-sex marriage is a logical extension of the idea of marriage as a vehicle for self-fulfillment. Yet he wouldn't hazard a guess on the outcome of the current battle.
One thing seems sure, though: People will always wonder and worry about the well-being of marriage.
The pioneering sociologist Edward Westermarck, who wrote the first serious study of marriage roughly a century ago, had an ornithologist colleague who, reflecting on divorce and adultery, concluded that humans are morally inferior to winged species that mate permanently.
"He is so filled with admiration for their exemplary family life," Westermarck said, "that he enthusiastically declares that 'real marriage can only be found among birds.'"Copyright © 2015, RedEye