The Real History of Marriage

[Author's Note: Throughout this article, clicking on the superscript numbers will take you to the referenced article.]

NPR (National Public Radio) airs a show called The Tavis Smiley Show. On July 13, Jerry Falwell was a guest on that show and made the following comments:

    "The issue is simply this. The family is one man married to one woman, period. And to say, as the two candidates are saying, one, Mr. Bush is saying I'm for the Federal Marriage Amendment, we say great. Mr. Kerry says I'm against same-sex marriage, but I'm against a federal marriage amendment, that's like saying 150 years ago, 'I'm opposed to slavery, but if my neighbor wants to own one, that's all right.' You're either going to take your stand to support the family, the 6000-year historic family, one man married to one woman, or you're not going to take it, and I think the American people, come November, will be greatly impressed by how these two candidates move on that issue."

Before we get into the real history of marriage, let's address the many inaccuracies in this short, five-"sentence" statement.

First, the issue isn't about what constitutes a family. The issue is whether our government has the right to ban citizens from enjoying their civil right to marry who they choose simply because certain segments of society find their choice to be morally corrupt. Mr. Falwell forgets we don't live in a democracy where the majority can tell the minority what it can or cannot do. We live in a constitutional republic where the wishes of the majority are limited to anything that does not violate the civil rights of even ONE citizen. And if a law is passed that DOES violate those rights, it is up to the courts in this country to declare those laws unconstitutional and to throw them out. That does not make the judges activists: it means they're doing their jobs properly.

Second, a family is not "one man married to one woman, period". That is one form of a family. It is not the only form. And historically, even in Judaism, it was most certainly not one man and one woman. Many of the major patriarchs of the Bible had multiple wives. And their families also included children!

Third, comparing gay marriage to slavery is comparing apples and oranges. Slavery was an institution that placed one person in control of the other— there was an innate inequality. The slave was not even considered a human being, but a mere possession and the consent of the slave to enter into this institution was not required. Marriage is an institution in which the consent of both parties is required and in which the parties are equal partners. Mr. Falwell's inflammatory rhetoric is fine, but his logic is lacking. (Of course, given Mr. Falwell's beliefs regarding the submission of wives to their husbands, there are those who would say that Mr. Falwell's ideal regarding marriage is not that far removed from slavery.)

Fourth, despite the fact that Mr. Falwell appears to believe that the earth is a mere 6000 years old and that marriage has been around since the beginning of that time, marriage as in institution is only about 4350 years old.

Fifth, the "historic family" Mr. Falwell touts doesn't exist. "Families" prior to the introduction of marriage— in the best guesstimate of anthropologists— consisted of several males, several females that were shared among the men and the children. Surely we can see vestiges of this in the early stories of the Old Testament. Jacob married two sisters and the children of one of them (Rachel) being Joseph, who became the dream interpreter for the Egyptian pharaohs. Jacob not only sired children to both Rachel and Leah but with their maidservants as well. The daughters of Lot bemoaned the fact that there are no males to impregnate them as was the custom, so they both slept with their father and their sons became leaders of nations. (Genesis 19.) In Deuteronomy, the law stated that when a married man died childless, if he had a brother living on his estate, his brother was expected to marry the man's widow and the firstborn son was considered to be the son of her dead husband.

Sixth, and finally, this isn't an "either/or" situation as Mr. Falwell has made it appear to be. One can still disagree with gay marriage but realize that according to the US Constitution, one's religious convictions are not a suitable basis for a law banning what one disagrees with. That is the position Mr. Kerry has taken. Mr. Bush, on the other hand, seems to think that his personal religious beliefs and the religious beliefs of his radical right wing campaign contributors should become the law of the land.

Wow! Six major mistakes in only five sentences. But I digress.

The history of marriage is not as clear cut, unchanging and "historic" as Mr. Bush, Mr. Falwell and others would have you think. Nor, contrary to their claims, has it always been about providing stable homes for children and insuring the welfare of children. Let me qualify that statement just a bit. In a sense, it was about insuring the welfare of children, but only in the sense that children were considered property, as were wives. Children could be bought and sold into slavery. Women, as mentioned above, were expected to marry their dead husband's brother, whether she wanted to or not. Marriage didn't really begin to gain importance as an institution until man began settling into a more agrarian society. Once there were estates to pass down and land to defend, a man had to insure that he was passing them down to his biological children. Thus marriage was born— as a means of dealing with the distribution of property. Marriage was controlled by the males of the family: women were given away in marriage whether they consented to it or not. It wasn't until 866 that Pope Nicholas I declared that consent of the woman was required to create a valid (ie, legal) marriage. Despite this, however, it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that married women had any legal standing. Sadly, in 1940, married women were still not able to make legal contracts in twelve states within the US.

Far from being an "historically religious ceremony", the Catholic church didn't even become involved in the issue of heterosexual marriage until around the 12th century. And it wasn't until the Council of Trent in 1563 that the Catholic church began to require marriages to be performed in a Catholic church by a Catholic priest. There is even proof, according to John Boswell in his book Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, that the Catholic church had special ceremonies for marrying gays. In Puritan Massachusetts, marriage was strictly a civil ceremony until 1686 with no involvement of clergy whatsoever.

As for the claims that marriage was to protect the welfare of children, consider these facts:

  • The minimum age of consent for sexual intercourse was as young as 7 years old (in Delaware) throughout most of the 19th century. Most American states during that same time made it 10 year of age. While most states how have a minimum age of 16, there are still two states— Iowa and Missouri— that place the age of consent at 14. (In New Mexico, the age of consent is 17 for heterosexual sex, but 13 for homosexual sex.)²
  • Twelve states allowed boys as young as 14 and girls as young as 12 to marry if they had parental consent up until the late 1930's. Even today, in New York and Texas, 13 year olds can marry with a court's permission. Or they can wait until they're 14 and get their parent's permission. (But only if you're a male in New York. Of course, you can get married at 14 in Utah if you've already been married or with parental permission.)³

Of course, the above doesn't take into account that until the latter part of the 1900's, children really had no rights within American society. Child labor laws are a recent addition to the books and even today, approximately 45% of child sexual abuse occurs at the hands of family members yet very few cases of incest are ever prosecuted, much less jail time meted out as punishment.

Marriage has, in the US especially, been a right reserved to those who possessed full citizenship. I remember when I was about eight or nine, I was in the car with my mother and we were discussing the uproar over the impending decision in the Loving v Virginia case. I remember vividly being enraged that the government would attempt to tell someone who they could or could not fall in love with— and therefore marry. (The idea of marrying for love seems to be a product 12th century troubadours. Even then, most marriages until the late 19th century were still arranged marriages and still made more for economic and/or political reasons than for love.) Yet in 1967, there were still sixteen states that had laws banning the marriages of blacks to whites. It wasn't until the year 2000 that the last of these sixteen states (Alabama) finally repealed their miscegenation laws. In fact, it wasn't until after the civil war that blacks even were permitted to marry each other! Slaves were not the only ones denied the right to marry— Native Americans were also once denied this right and gays still are fighting for equality with respect to marriage.

This article is by no means an extensive history of marriage. But even the spattering of facts presented here show that rather than being the "historic" and "unchanging" institution that President Bush and Mr. Falwell et al are claiming it is, marriage is an ever evolving institution that has, at various points in time, held both civil and/or religious meaning. While doing the research for this article, I came across a cartoon by Tom Tomorrow that summed up the history of marriage quite succinctly while at the same time showing the absurdity of the claims made by those who support the Federal Marriage Amendment (which, by the way, failed no thanks to the two senators of my state, Rick Santorum and Arlen Spectre. Shame on both of you for trying to write discrimination into the US Constitution, a document that is meant to protect rights, not take them away! That won't be forgotten on November 2!)

Don't be fooled by the inflammatory rhetoric, distortions of the truth and outright lies being spewed by the radical religious right. Don't allow them to destroy the US Constitution by tearing down the wall of separation of church and state. But most importantly, THINK! Don't take what they say— or even what I say— without checking out the facts for yourself. I've provided you with some links. If you want a list of resources, email me and I'll send you list of articles I found as well as the names of some authors who have done authoritative work on the history of marriage. Or just type "history of marriage" into Google's search engine. Marriage to the person of our choice is a basic civil right, affirmed time and again by the US Supreme Court— a right that gays are being denied. A right that blacks were once denied. A right that women were once denied (because they had no choice on who to marry.) A right that YOU may one day be denied if you support the passage of the Federal Marriage Amendment. If they can make laws to prevent gays from marrying who they choose, they can make laws to prevent YOU from marrying who you choose. THINK about it. Please, just THINK.

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