Public Vows

Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation by Nancy F. Cott

Marriage has been a hot button issue for the last few decades of American history; first with battles of interracial marriage and now gay marriage. At the same time the naturalness of consensual, monogamous marriage remains unexamined in American public life and thinking. These assumptions about marriage seem to be in the very air most Americans breathe. In her powerfully argued and deeply insightful book, Nancy Cott drags these assumptions and their consequences into the analytic light.

Cott identifies three central features of marriage in American (from 1492 to the present): it has always been an institution supported by and defined by the state, it has been consensual and monogamous, and it has been central to “othering” minority groups and regulating ideas like race and gender. Marriage has never been a primarily religious institution in the United States, even during the colonial period. For example, the colonial period’s, arguably, most religious group – the Puritans – saw marriage as a state institution. This state-centered institution of marriage has made the legal establishment of families an important sphere of public policy. American governments have used the institution as a carrot and stick to shape its population in desired directions. This is not to say that Christianity has not had an important role in shaping American marriage as an institution. Two of its central features, monogamy and consensuality, are a legacy of Christianity.

In the American context these two features have helped shape what it means to be an American, thus marriage has a deeply political role to play. The consensual natural of American marriage has reinforced the republican and contractual nature of American government. From day one the link between consensual marriage and consensual governance have been mutually reinforcing. Monogamy has also helped regulate what a proper American should look like. It has helped exclude groups – such as Native Americans and, later, Mormons – who do not necessarily practice monogamous marriage customs. A respectable American was one who limited his or her sexuality to one partner through consensual, life-long monogamous marriage.

Governments’ marriage policies have also severed to regulate race and gender. From the colonial period to the present, regulations permitting whites to only marry whites, blacks to only marry blacks, and slaves and homosexuals not being able to marry at all has significantly aided in the construction of race and gender. Marriage laws and privileges and benefits they create, in many ways, are what define a respectable American.  Thus marriage has been a central site of conflict as excluded groups – such as former slaves and homosexuals – fight to enter the American mainstream.

Marriage in the United States has proved a remarkably adaptable institution. Many aspects of what Cott identifies as the foundational definition of marriage – “faithful monogamy, formed by the mutual consent of a man and a woman, bearing the impress of Christian religion and the English common law in its expectations for the husband to be the family head and economic provide, his wife the dependent partner” – have fallen away or been reshaped by cultural and economic change.[1] Marriage has become less of straightforward economic institution with the rise of companiable marriage in the nineteenth century; coverture has been weakened and, perhaps, toppled; interracial marriage is legally permissible; divorce is common and accessible; and now many are challenging the idea of marriage as between “one man and one woman.” Yet, marriage has also reshaped those who have sought to reshape the institution – the central values of American marriage, mutual consent and monogamy, have left their mark on American culture as much as changes in American culture has left is mark on marriage. Thus, despite its liberalization over time, marriage remains a powerful tool of public policy in shaping Americans to be a certain kind of people.

TIE-IN: This book is difficult to tie directly into any single book. However, changes in marriage can be an important sub-theme in any answer (about culture change, economic change, etc.). Cott’s argument about how ideas of mutual consent in marriage reinforce American republicanism tie well into Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic and Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.

[1] The definition of marriage at the foundation of the United States is on: Nancy F. Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 3.


Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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