Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Marriage and Divorce
By Horace Greeley (18111872)
[Letter to the Hon. Robert Dale Owen, 5 March, 1860.From Reforms and Reformers.Recollections of a Busy Life. 1868.]
I AM perfectly willing to see all social experiments tried that any earnest, rational being deems calculated to promote the well-being of the human family; but I insist that this matter of marriage and divorce has passed beyond the reasonable scope of experiment. The ground has all been travelled over and over,from indissoluble monogamic marriage down through polygamy, concubinage, easy divorce, to absolute free love, mankind have tried every possible modification and shade of relation between man and woman. If these multiform, protracted, diversified, infinitely repeated experiments have not established the superiority of the union of one man to one woman for life,in short, marriage,to all other forms of sexual relation, then history is a deluding mist, and man has hitherto lived in vain.
But you assert that the people of Indiana are emphatically moral and chaste in their domestic relations. That may be: at all events, I have not yet called it in question. Indiana is yet a young State,not so old as either you or I,and most of her adult population were born, and I think most of them were reared and married, in States which teach and maintain the indissolubility of marriage. That population is yet sparse, the greater part of it in moderate circumstances, engaged in rural industry, and but slightly exposed to the temptations born of crowds, luxury, and idleness. In such circumstances, continence would probably be general, even were marriage unknown. But let time and change do their work, and then see! Given the population of Italy in the days of the Cæsars, with easy divorce, and I believe the result would be like that experienced by the Roman Republic, which, under the sway of easy divorce, rotted away and perished, blasted by the mildew of unchaste mothers and dissolute homes.
If experiments are to be tried in the direction you favor, I insist that they shall be tried fairly,not under cover of false promises and baseless pretences. Let those who will take each other on trial; but let such unions have a distinct name, as in Paris or Hayti, and let us know just who are married (old style), and who have formed unions to be maintained or terminated as circumstances shall dictate. Those who choose the latter will of course consummate it without benefit of clergy; but I do not see how they need even so much ceremony as that of jumping the broomstick. Ill love you so long as Im able, and swear for no longer than this, what need is there of any solemnity to hallow such a union? What libertine would hesitate to promise that much, even if fully resolved to decamp next morning? If man and woman are to be true to each other only so long as they shall each find constancy the dictate of their several inclinations, there can be no such crime as adultery, and mankind have too long been defrauded of innocent enjoyment by priestly anathemas and ghostly maledictions. Let us each do what for the moment shall give us pleasurable sensations, and let all such fantasies as God, duty, conscience, retribution, eternity, be banished to the moles and the bats, with other forgotten rubbish of bygone ages of darkness and unreal terrors.
But ifas I firmly believemarriage is a matter which concerns, not only the men and women who contract it, but the state, the community, mankind,if its object be not merely the mutual gratification and advantage of the husband and wife, but the due sustenance, nurture, and education of their children,if, in other words, those who voluntarily incur the obligations of parentage can only discharge those obligations personally and conjointly, and to that end are bound to live together in love at least until their youngest child shall have attained perfect physical and intellectual maturity,then I deny that a marriage can be dissolved save by death or that crime which alone renders its continuance impossible. I look beyond the special case to the general law, and to the reason which underlies that law; and I say, no couple can innocently take upon themselves the obligations of marriage until they KNOW that they are one in spirit, and so must remain forever. If they rashly lay profane hands on the ark, theirs alone is the blame; be theirs alone the penalty! They have no right to cast it on that public which admonished and entreated them to forbear, but admonished and entreated in vain.