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Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation / Edition 1

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Overview

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

Booklist

Christian monogamy and property rights have been crucial to state and federal policies on marriage ever since the American republic was born, and how Americans have felt about marriage has affected much larger developments than the joining of one man and one woman in matrimony...[According to Public Vows,] marriage is now much less a matter of public policy—an institution—than one of private accommodation—a contract. Cott's cool, intelligent overview is sometimes demanding but always absorbing.
— Ray Olson

Women's Review of Books

As a historian, Nancy Cott is not obligated to look into the future. But her incisive illumination and readable analysis of the weight of history will help both scholars and activists who wish to understand and help shape the future of marriage and family life.
— E. Kay Trimberger

Eric Foner
In showing how marriage has always been regulated and shaped by the state, Nancy Cott not only recasts our understanding of this most intimate of relationships but enables us to think in new ways about concepts of privacy, public power, and, ultimately, liberty itself in American history.
Martha Minow
With Public Vows, Nancy Cott provides the most powerful and thorough account of the evolution of marriage as a legal and social practice in this country, and as a consistent focus of public regulation and political concern. This engaging and lucid book should be on the required reading list of every serious observer of American politics as well as students of social history, marriage, and the family. Cott offers a lens onto racial, religious, and ethnic conflicts, along with a compelling argument that the public uses of marriage can include preservation of a sacred space for private meanings.
Neil J. Smelser
Public Vows is an extraordinary accomplishment. Nancy Cott definitively establishes the public character of the 'private' institution of marriage in American history. More, she reveals how the American image of monogamy has been infused into laws, social issues and political debates in ways and to an extent one never would have imagined. The book is insightful, imaginatively and thoroughly researched, and convincing. Reading it compelled me to expand and improve my understandings of the institution of marriage.
Linda K. Kerber
Public Vows is a tour de force, a wide-ranging history of marriage from the era of the American Revolution to the era of President Clinton's impeachment and the 'Defense of Marriage Act.' Thanks to this book, people who are unmarried, married or divorced, gays and lesbians, political activists and scholars, all will better understand the weight of history in shaping marriage American style.
Hendrik Hartog
A gracefully written, deeply researched, and wide-ranging survey of the roles marriage has played in American public discourse, a survey that challenges how political history has been written and that will become the essential starting point for anyone interested in the history of marriage in the United States.
Carolyn G. Heilbrun
One of our most notable American historians offers in lively readable prose the story of marriage laws in the U.S. from earliest times to the present. Have the rules governing marriage changed in our own times? Good question: read on!
Booklist - Ray Olson
Christian monogamy and property rights have been crucial to state and federal policies on marriage ever since the American republic was born, and how Americans have felt about marriage has affected much larger developments than the joining of one man and one woman in matrimony...[According to Public Vows,] marriage is now much less a matter of public policy--an institution--than one of private accommodation--a contract. Cott's cool, intelligent overview is sometimes demanding but always absorbing.
Women's Review of Books - E. Kay Trimberger
As a historian, Nancy Cott is not obligated to look into the future. But her incisive illumination and readable analysis of the weight of history will help both scholars and activists who wish to understand and help shape the future of marriage and family life.
Booklist
Christian monogamy and property rights have been crucial to state and federal policies on marriage ever since the American republic was born, and how Americans have felt about marriage has affected much larger developments than the joining of one man and one woman in matrimony...[According to Public Vows,] marriage is now much less a matter of public policy--an institution--than one of private accommodation--a contract. Cott's cool, intelligent overview is sometimes demanding but always absorbing.
— Ray Olson
Women's Review of Books
As a historian, Nancy Cott is not obligated to look into the future. But her incisive illumination and readable analysis of the weight of history will help both scholars and activists who wish to understand and help shape the future of marriage and family life.
— E. Kay Trimberger
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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 Cahners Business Information.
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.--Rose Cichy, Osterhout Free Lib., Wilkes-Barre, PA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674008755
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 392,579
  • Product dimensions: 6.96 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

Nancy F. Cott is Professor of History at Harvard University.
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Table of Contents

Introduction

1. An Archaeology of American Monogamy

2. Perfecting Community Rules with State Laws

3. Domestic Relations on the National Agenda

4. Toward a Single Standard

5. Monogamy as the Law of Social Life

6. Consent, the American Way

7. The Modern Architecture of Marriage

8. Public Sanctity for a Private Realm

9. Marriage Revised and Revived

Notes

Acknowledgments

Index

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