Polygamy, gay marriage, and the liberal mindset

by John MacBeath Watkins

For a lesson in traditional marriage, we should, I suppose, look to the Bible.

King Solomon is said to have had 300 wives. I have, in a previous post, pledged to settle down and get married as soon as I find the right 300 women to allow me to marry in the traditional style (that is, always outnumbered, always outgunned,.)

But although the Bible is replete with references to polygamous marriage, modern Americans are more comfortable with the notion of gay marriage, which is mentioned nowhere I know of in the Bible.

There are practical reasons for this. Conservatives fighting against gay marriage found it difficult to find proof that children raised in such households are harmed by this. Opponents of polygamy seem to suffer from no such difficulty. Communities that practice polygamy have been accused of forcing under-aged girls into marriage with older men, exploiting children and having them do unsafe work, being abusive to children, and kicking teenage boys out of the community when they start showing an interest in girls so that the girls will be available to older men. The boys are shunned by their families and forced to live in a world they know almost nothing about outside the community.

But I don't think such practical matters are really the key to why polygamy is less acceptable than gay marriage.to the modern Western mind.

The key is a revolution in how we think of people, codified by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, and especially the thinkers of liberalism.

Thomas Hobbes laid out a new system of value in Leviathan, published in the mid-17th century. He said that " The ‘value,’ or ‘worth,’ of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power; and therefore is not absolute, but a thing dependent on the need and judgment of another."

That sounds horribly philistine, but what was revolutionary was the last clause in that complicated sentence, in which he proposed a subjective system of value. We were now to be valued by each other, not by the priest or by the position of our birth.

John Locke, writing at the end of the 17th century, noticed that not only did we value each other, our relationships were often subject to the rules of property. The master of a household had something like a property right to those within it under the law of his time.

A married woman, for example, was regarded as a "feme covert," that is, she became, for property purposes, one with her husband, and subordinate to him. (A widow would be a "feme sole," in charge of herself.) If a woman at that time (and in fact until the late 19th century) in England held, for example, a copyright, it passed to her husband when she married and would not be returned to her if she divorced. In fact, all of the household's property remained with the husband, and a divorced woman would usually be impoverished unless a very good prenuptial agreement were negotiated.

Property was also connected intimately with the notion of citizenship. To vote in England at the time, you had to own property.

Locke's Second Treatise of Government contained a ticking time bomb. He proposed that we all own property in our own person, and cannot alienate -- that is sell -- that particular property. Every person, therefore, had inalienable property rights to themselves, that is, we are each of us our own master.

All that remained was to decide who was a person. A dawning realization that slaves are people meant that they must logically be their own masters, and slavery must be immoral. The Women's Rights movement brought about property rights for married women before it brought them the vote. The Married Women's Property Acts were not completed in England until 1882, though earlier acts had set the pattern.

But polygamous marriages worked, to the extent they did, because women and children were regarded as property of the master of the household. If wives are recognized as their own "master," this relationship no longer exists.

The term "feme covert" seems at first glance to have promise. One pictures a Thurber cartoon, with the wife in ninja clothing and the ineffectual husband looking on, the caption reading, "When you married me I was a blushing maid, but now I am a feme covert, Mr. Johnson!"

One of Thurber's main themes was "the war between men and women," which he seems to have lost to his domineering first wife. But by then, the feme covert was a thing of the past, community property was the future.

We still see conflict over the nature of marriage. Traditionalists still advocate "traditional marriage,"
sometimes even polygamous marriage. What they mean by this is a return to the concept of the feme covert, subordinate to her master. It is no coincidence that the same people often worry about keeping control of their children, worried that exposing them to public schools would cause them to learn things they shouldn't know, like evolution, and expose them to a system of values that would be distressingly modern. This could give them dangerous ideas of autonomy.

Birth control has meant that marriage doesn't have to be about child rearing, and many of the tasks of the household that used to consume a great deal of women's time, like spinning and weaving and sewing clothing, have been moved outside the home. Marriage is less about property and child rearing than it has ever been before, and more about love, and a partnership between equals.

As people are recognized as equals, old barriers have fallen. Miscegenation laws fell because, if African Americans are not a lesser race, why should they not marry whites? As the humanity of homosexuals has been recognized by society at large, the question comes up, why should they not marry who they love?

What was once common knowledge, that the master of the household is the master of all within it, has fallen before the revolutionary idea that we are all our own masters. Few people have read Hobbes or Locke, but their ideas permeate our society and are still reshaping it. Ideas travel though a society less by formal indoctrination than by a sort of mimetic contagion. It is :"common knowledge" now that we are our own men and women, when in an earlier age, it was common knowledge that this was not the case.