- Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation
Public Vows, by Nancy Cott, challenges academic and lay audiences alike to reconsider marriage, not merely as a private domestic act, but as a public institution which both structures and stabilizes the state. Using marriage as her frame and dipping into a dazzling palette of secondary sources as well as original research, Cott paints her story with a broad brush, covering the years from John Winthrop’s Massachusetts to Bill Clinton’s Washington in just 227 pages of text. Along the way, she stops to consider the importance of the marriage contract for the public policing of gender, race, and national identity, blending forceful scholarly arguments into a sweeping new synthesis of American history.
With this work, Cott brings to the fore one of the most promising recent trends in family history, the effort to draw clear connections between private life and public order. Her argument rests on extensive secondary research as well as original analysis of American legal decisions and legislative actions pertaining to marriage. Shifting from more celebratory explorations of love and marriage offered by scholars like Ellen Rothman and Karen Lystra, Cott insists that marriage matters at least as much for community standing as for self-understanding. Indeed, because she conceptualizes her study as much as a history of the nation, as a history of marriage, Cott pays scant attention to what she calls questions of “individual identity and...circles of intimacy.” Instead, she focuses her efforts on analyzing the coercive and compulsive aspects of marriages contracted on the Christian monogamous model.
Cott organizes her book according to a fairly standard chronology of American history, threading several key strands of analysis throughout her narrative. One focus of her interpretation concerns the use of marriage to define membership in the nation. Because marital status and legal citizenship were intimately intertwined, marriage regulations could be used to define the boundaries of citizenship. Marriage traditionally granted men recognition of their status as household heads with legal rights to the labor of their dependents and responsibilities for their care, while it subsumed women’s identities into those of their husbands, denying them independent ownership of property and political participation alike. By the same token, refusing legal recognition of the marriages of enslaved African-Americans in the antebellum era or of Japanese laborers and their “picture-brides” in the early twentieth century dramatized their lack of citizenship and their dependent status in the eyes of the law. Marriage regulations could thus be used to exclude some groups from full citizenship.
Conversely, Cott argues, restricted definitions of what constituted legal marriage encouraged adherence to social norms. Regulating interracial unions, for [End Page 207] example, could bind people to the polity as easily as it could exclude them. Thus, in the early republic Native American men were goaded to join in monogamous marriages as a means of gaining admission to the nation, while their women were encouraged to enter Christian marriages with white men. During Reconstruction, black men’s marriages became a particular focus of government attention. They were promised full recognition as male citizens if they would settle into monogamous marriages with black women, but legally forbidden to enter marriages with white women. Similarly, by the early twentieth century, immigrant groups from Eastern and Southern Europeans to Asians could more easily gain admittance if they arrived in America in family groups anchored by a husband and wife. If women lost the most when it came to the distribution of legal advantages defined by marriage, men too lost liberty through their participation in an institution which required them, and not the state, to assume responsibility for the economic well-being of dependents.
For Cott, one of the most interesting paradoxes of American marriage policy is the fact that marriage has been simultaneously encouraged and confined. She seeks to determine why Christian monogamy was idealized to the exclusion of all other possible forms of marriage. Her answer lies in the concept of consent as an organizing principle of American life and...