- Unfaithful: Love, Adultery, and Marriage Reform in Nineteenth-Century America by Carol Faulkner
Marriage, Marriage reform, Nineteenth century, Divorce, Adultery, Free love, Romantic freedom
Unfaithful is an engaging account of how an eclectic group of northern reformers helped redefine marriage as a relationship legitimated by love rather than law. Radical free lovers and communitarians who sought to abolish marriage, as well as moderate feminists seeking to improve the institution, deployed the apparent contradiction of “legalized adultery” to highlight harms caused by marriage. Christian perfectionists, secular communitarians, spiritualists, and free-love feminists offered very diff erent solutions. These radicals were more successful than given credit for, Faulkner argues; while often brushed off as “eccentric,” their core contention—“that only love makes marriage”—ultimately became mainstream (2). Faulkner deftly handles a potentially confusing cast of characters, [End Page 502] and offers a satisfying epilogue wrapping up several of these colorful reformers’ lives. The only shortcoming of this book is its limited engagement with legal history; Faulkner references increasing divorce rates, but we don’t learn why the laws governing divorce and criminal conversation were revised and what, if anything, it had to do with marriage reformers’ efforts.
Faulkner’s study focuses on New York, in part because a legal quirk made the state more hospitable to those who challenged marital conventions: it was one of the only states that did not criminalize adultery in the nineteenth century. She begins with the ultimately unsuccessful campaign, led by evangelicals in the New York Moral Reform Society, who hoped to reduce sin by holding men to as high a standard of sexual fidelity as women were. Their efforts produced mixed results; seduction— luring a previously chaste woman into sex with promises of marriage—was criminalized, but extramarital sex was not. The lack of criminal penalties for adultery created an opening for a new group of marriage reformers, the perfectionists led by John Humphrey Noyes who believed their salvation freed them from sin.
Noyes saw “marriage, a worldly institution created by church and human laws, as itself sinful” and sought to counter it with complex marriage—a system of structured adultery—promoting “inclusive, open sexual love as a demonstration of their own perfection” (27). Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the struggles of Noyes’s followers to implement complex marriage as the community relocated from Vermont to Oneida, New York, to avoid prosecutions for adultery. George and Mary Cragin strove to “defeat their monogamous, idolatrous love” (30), while the first convert in Oneida, Tryphena Hubbard Seymour, whose sexual activities—whether resistance or overindulgence is unclear—threatened the patriarchal prerogatives of both her husband and Noyes, resulting in brutal domestic violence, institutionalization, and divorce. Complex marriage under Noyes offered women freedom from sin and control over their sexuality, but only under Noyes’s direction.
Secular reformers were concerned with marriage as a source of oppression rather than sin. Chapter 4 focuses on Stephen Pearl Andrews, who argued that the legal restrictions of marriage interfered with personal sovereignty. Andrews argued that “love . . . was the only true basis of intimacy,” and therefore sex without love was adultery even within the bounds of marriage (55). Women as well as men were entitled to romantic freedom, and as such “marriage an obstacle to women’s liberation” (57). [End Page 503] His insistence that free love was essential to women’s rights made him a thorn in the side of more moderate feminists.
Chapter 5 shows how moderate reformers agreed with Andrews’s contention that sex without love was adultery yet came to diff erent conclusions about marriage. Spiritualists like Mary Fenn and Andrew Jackson Davis as well as prominent phrenologists sought to “redeem the institution—not reject it—by promoting true love and happiness as fundamental to marriage” (61). The Davises argued that divorce by mutual consent should be permitted to end “false” marriages so that partners could seek their soulmates. They faced criticism from fellow spiritualist Beverly Paschal Randolph, the only person of color among the reformers considered here. Randolph...