The Evolution of the American Marriage

“Mawage.  Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday.  Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam…  And wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva… ” – Clergyman in the 1987 film The Princess Bride


Many Americans are raised to believe in one type of marriage – a monogamous union between a man and a woman – and many of us are convinced that this is the only path to wedded bliss.  Marriage in the US was, until the early 20th century, generally a matter of religion, economics, procreation, and social status, and was often arranged for the greatest financial or social benefit.  But in a modern society that relies considerably less on the stringent rules of any number of religions, we need to re-define our concept of modern marriage – it’s no longer only the religious and economic construction it once was.   With increasing frequency, people (men and women, women and women, and men and men) are getting married simply because marriage is considered a celebration of love, and because of the legal benefits associated with the marriage certificate.  But we also divorce each other just as readily as we tie the knot.  The concept of marriage has certainly evolved over time, and will continue to adjust to meet rapidly changing social norms.


Colonial and Early American Marriage


Many people today pine for the “good old days” when ladies and gentlemen courted respectfully without a hint of lust, and entered into a marriage made stronger by abstinence during courtship.  While many early American couples – often entering arranged marriages – followed this relatively chaste path to marriage, historical records suggest than in the 1700s, one in three brides was pregnant as she walked down the aisle.  In many early American communities, couples who lived together for more than one year, and who often became pregnant in that time, were automatically considered married.


Bundling, introduced into the American colonies by immigrant groups, was a practice encouraged by parents in which a male suitor spent the night in the bed of his future bride in order to determine the compatibility of the couple.  Although a “bundling board” may be placed between the couple, or they may sleep separately in a “bundling sack” you can imagine that many young couples weren’t exactly as chaste as their parents may have hoped.


Divorces were granted in Puritan and Dutch colonies to both men and women, usually for desertion, adultery, or failure to provide.  Women received more requested divorces than men, although more women applied for divorces than received them.


Marriage Laws and Bans in the US


Marriage laws in the US – mostly declaring what some individual is not allowed to do – have been evolving since the 1600s.  One of the earliest marriage laws, enacted in Virginia in 1691, stated that any marriage between a white person and a person of color (mainly black or Native American) would result in banishment from the colony, generally meaning death in the woods.  This ban stood in some form for nearly three centuries until 1967, when the US Supreme Court overturned laws declaring it illegal for an interracial couple to marry.  Similar laws remained in state constitutions for a surprisingly long amount of time – Alabama removed interracial marriage bans in the year 2000.


In 1769, American colonies adopted the English law on marriage, which stated that, “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law. The very being and legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated into that of her husband under whose wing and protection she performs everything.”  It seems unbelievable in 2012 – we’ve come a long way since the 1700s – but you or your parents were alive when married women were by law not allowed credit independent of their husbands.


In 1973, Maryland became the first state to define marriage as specifically “between a man and a woman.” Homosexual immigrants had been legally banned from entering the US for well over a century, but the 1965 Immigration Act that lifted immigration quotas based on race and nationality, and allowed relatives of prior immigrants to enter the country, also banned homosexuals as “sexual deviants.”  This Act stood for 25 years.  In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act defined marriage under federal law as exclusively between a man and a woman.  But marriage-related struggles are nothing new.  Many staunchly conservative Americans also opposed the rights of slaves to marry, the rights of interracial couples to marry, and the rights of women to maintain their full independence in marriage.


The World It Is A-Changing


As society changes, so will the concept of marriage.  While American society historically frowned upon unwed parents, it’s now becoming normal to rear children outside of marriage.  Adoptions are becoming more common among single parents and people in same-sex relationships (adoptions by same-sex couples are now prohibited only in Mississippi and Utah).  In some places, including our own beautiful Corvallis, marriage rates are actually decreasing – the overall number of married couples in the US has declined by approximately 20% since 1960.  And while it’s still an up-hill challenge (as it was for people of color and for women), homosexual couples are, state-by-state, gaining the same rights to wedded bliss – and all the legal protections and rights that come with it – as heterosexual couples.  The world it is a-changing, and from our own nation’s history of marriage we can see that generally these changes are very positive and open up more and new rights for all people.


Biblical Polygamy and Concubines


Modern-day American marriages, with few exceptions, are generally monogamous, but historically there have been many types of marital arrangements.  Polygamy (or polygyny), the practice of having multiple wives or husbands, is usually associated with historical and controversial practices of members of The Church of Latter Day Saints.  However, polygamy is also referenced favorably in the Christian Bible with Lamech, in Genesis 4:19, as the first example with two wives.  With two wives and two female slaves, Jacob produced twelve sons who became the patriarchs of the twelve Tribes of Israel.  The greatest number of biblical wives to one husband is probably Solomon, who apparently had more than 700 wives of royal birth.  God was displeased by this, not because of polygamy, but because the wives were of foreign birth and worshipped foreign gods.  In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which made polygamy a felony in the US.


Most versions of the Bible describe Eve’s relationship to Adam thusly – “…thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Many biblical women were not able to leave the homes of their husbands or talk to strangers.  It was also accepted that men could keep multiple concubines, who were lower in status even than wives, and could be dismissed when no longer wanted.


By Genevieve Weber