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Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation [Paperback]

by Nancy F. Cott
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 7, 2002 0674008758 978-0674008755 New Ed

We commonly think of marriage as a private matter between two people, a personal expression of love and commitment. In this pioneering history, Nancy F. Cott demonstrates that marriage is and always has been a public institution.

From the founding of the United States to the present day, imperatives about the necessity of marriage and its proper form have been deeply embedded in national policy, law, and political rhetoric. Legislators and judges have envisioned and enforced their preferred model of consensual, lifelong monogamy--a model derived from Christian tenets and the English common law that posits the husband as provider and the wife as dependent. In early confrontations with Native Americans, emancipated slaves, Mormon polygamists, and immigrant spouses, through the invention of the New Deal, federal income tax, and welfare programs, the federal government consistently influenced the shape of marriages. And even the immense social and legal changes of the last third of the twentieth century have not unraveled official reliance on marriage as a "pillar of the state."

By excluding some kinds of marriages and encouraging others, marital policies have helped to sculpt the nation's citizenry, as well as its moral and social standards, and have directly affected national understandings of gender roles and racial difference. Public Vows is a panoramic view of marriage's political history, revealing the national government's profound role in our most private of choices. No one who reads this book will think of marriage in the same way again.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Marriage, both as a private contract and a public institution, has profoundly affected national policy since the earliest days of the republic. In this exhaustively researched study (reference notes occupy 80 of its 288 pages), Cott, the Stanley Woodward professor of history and American studies at Yale, posits a monolithic Christian monogamous marriage, formed by the mutual consent of a man and a woman, as American colonists' model. This model, she argues, was congruent with the political ideal of representative government: the Constitution's "more perfect union" was likened to the domestic ideal of marital union. Entry to marriage, Cott observes, has been regulated by the states, which have also used their power to limit this civil right. Before the Civil War, in slaveholding states, slaves had no access to legal marriage, while long after the war, mixed marriages between whites and African-Americans, or whites and Asians, were prohibited in many states. The U.S. government's (losing) legal battle against the Mormon practice of polygamy has been another continuing saga in U.S. social history. Cott cites the current prevalence of divorce, same sex couples seeking legally recognized unions, and new interpretations of the roles of husband and wife as factors that portend further changes in the social landscape. Though her subject is a fascinating one, and Cott has a sterling reputation that will draw women's studies devot es, her densely packed prose and lengthy paragraphs make this book most appropriate for serious students of U.S. social history. (Jan.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

In this fascinating study, Cott (history and American studies, Yale) examines the evolution and impact of marriage law on the American social structure. Applying Christian tradition and English common law, Colonial marriage statutes regarded the union as a contract of mutual consent and obligations, with the dominant husband having protector/provider responsibilities and the dependent wife, nurturer/child bearer duties. The author contends that over time this concept shaped public views of gender roles and limited women's civic identity and independence. In addition, marriage law has been used to define and restrict political participation by minorities, immigrants, and non-Christian groups; it has also influenced legislation concerning property rights, the income tax, social security, and naturalization. Today, despite cultural changes, the legal constraints of marriage remain a cornerstone of the status quo, withstanding pressure for acceptance of same-sex unions and improved status for single parents. Presented in a clear, chronological fashion, this work provides a wealth of thought-provoking information. Highly recommended.DRose Cichy, Osterhout Free Lib., Wilkes-Barre, PA
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; New Ed edition (April 7, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674008758
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674008755
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 7 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #215,742 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Strong, Detailed Historical Discussion January 20, 2004
Although the institution of "marriage" among humans is generally considered to be thousands of years old, it has a much shorter history as a public insitution in the United States. Nancy Cott's book dives straight into the history of marriage in the U.S., from early societal attitudes and government regulation during the push westward to later government attempts to reign in those with differing sexual mores throughout the 18th century. Her discusison of the state of marriage in the 20th century is equally revealing.
Nancy weaves a tale with many facts that few people are probably aware of: that marriage was frequently unregulated in early America, that divorce was relatively common (but frowned upon), and that religious and utopian communities were challenging the status quo of marriage and state control of the institution from very early on in our nation's history. She makes the best case I've ever heard for proving that marriage is a public institution subject to the will of the state and men in power, transformed and changed over decades by government, often for purposes of exercising control over the population (especially women) and for imposing on the nation the perceived natural order of things.
Marriage may be ancient in origin, but Nancy Cott does an excellent job in the end of showing that "marriage" in the U.S. did not simply grow organically from these ancient traditions, and that government is capable of altering the institution for its own purposes as it sees fit, regardless of what might truly best for society or the individuals in it. While Cott does not explore the impact of her findings on same-sex marriage in great detail, it is very enlightening to understand that debate in light of the changes in marital law over the past 200 years that Cott cleverly elucidates for the reader. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand the evolution of the institution of civil marriage in the United States.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a great book! March 23, 2001
By A Customer
This book is a clearly-written, informative and provocative history of the institution of marriage. Nancy Cott beautifully traces the development of marriage and the political and legal framework in which it has developed since the founding of the American Republic. Only an expert historian could so concisely explain the complex phenomena undergirding this institution with such grace and ease. A must-read for all those interested in legal, social and women's history in America.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Eye Opener May 7, 2004
By TSmith
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A detailed history of how legal, lifelong, heterosexual monogamous marriage has been actively promoted, mandated, and enforced by various means throughout the history of the USA, with little or no tolerance for those who espouse nontraditonal relationship forms. Well researched and well written. Highly recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good work of history February 11, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
As other reviewers note, this book is a well-researched and, at times, eye-opening examination of the history of marriage in the United States. Cott primarily argues that the present upholding of monogamous marriage between one man and one woman as the norm in the US is as much the product of significant historical legal and political decisions as it is a social standard that every simply accepts. She presents her argument coherently and shows herself to be a thorough historian and thoughtful writer.

My only quibble is this: she flies through the sexual revolution and the past five decades at breakneck speed while only touching on incredibly important recent developments. She recognizes seismic shifts but does not examine them as closely as she does the formative years of the nation. I would have enjoyed reading a lengthier examination of the past half-century.
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18 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Utterly mind boggling and excellent June 23, 2001
Just shy of 300 pages and 9 Chapters that cover An Archaeology of American Monogamy; Perfecting Community Rules with State Laws; Domestic Relations on the National Agenda; Toward a Single Standard; Monogamy as the Law of Social Life; Consent, the American way; The Modern Architecture of Marriage; Public Sanctity for a Private Realm; and Marriage Revised and Revived.
As the author notes Mae West had the best quote about marriage when she said "Marriage is a great institution ... but I ain't ready for an institution yet". But it is the rich historical facts she shares that provide great insight into the deep misogynist roots of marriage and how it was usually and in some cases still is a contract a man has with a woman. This is why I have always seen marriage as nothing more that legalized prostitution and a protection of material wealth.
The author shows how Protestants and to some degree Catholics have decreed what marriage should be as well as how strong men and women have risen up over the decades and even centuries to denounce attempts to regulate whom they could have sex with and attempts to require that people marry to have sex, own property in common.
The books discusses Americas racist and sexist history with marriage and how some politicians were as eugenic minded as well. And how the rich were and have always been given the slight nudge and wink to do damn well what they want which included having lovers. The hypocrisy of American marriage laws.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Interesting July 23, 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is one of the most interesting books that I've read in a long time. I read it for a college paper I was writing, and found it was not a book that I would just skim, but rather one that I read cover-to-cover. Nancy Cott manages to bring to light tons of historical facts about marriage. As I read some of the reviews that say they didn't learn anything, I have to wonder if these reviewers read the same book. Nancy's book is filled with referenced facts (something like 1/4 of the book is a list of her references), so you can look up the original materials if you think she's biased and presenting a skewed history (or just want to be sure she isn't). While this book is an outstanding example of scholarship, it's also highly accessible - it doesn't read like a text book, so it can be enjoyed by both academics and the rest of us! I'd encourage anyone interested in family studies, gender studies, or the contemporary debate on the government's role in marriage to read this book - the historical perspective it presents will enlighten your thinking.
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