May 26, 2004
The current debate about gay marriage echoes past arguments about the right of African-Americans to marry.
African-American slaves were denied legal rights to marry because they were seen as incapable of upholding the morality of the institution. Their status as chattel property invalidated any claims they might make to engage in contracts (marital or otherwise).
Though slaves could and did marry -- with their master's consent -- their vows to each other were legally null and void. The slave master held right to control his property however he saw fit. The desire to reproduce human capital and the prerogative to sell slaves to increase profits or cut losses superceded respect for African-American unions.
Blacks and their white allies argued forcefully against the racist assumptions embedded in these practices and fought to secure marriage on the grounds of civil rights, human rights and citizenship.
Abolitionists focused attention upon the degradation of family life under slavery. Human bondage, they said, could not be reconciled with the goals of monogamous marriage.
Pro-slavery advocates swore otherwise. They said that the "peculiar institution" was itself like a marriage -- an unequal but reciprocal relationship that provided the best supervision and care for an "inferior race."
The association between marriage and liberation took on increasing significance as the end of slavery approached. During the Civil War, as many slaves escaped to freedom following the foot trails of Union Army soldiers, marriage often became the first civil right exercised. It was so popular that it overwhelmed the capacity of federal forces to accommodate them. A black soldier expressed the sentiment underlying their determinations this way: "The marriage covenant is at the foundation of all our rights."
The bitter opposition to the legalization of black marriage was not easily ruptured. White Southerners resisted bestowing equality on black marriage. Federal officials and Northern missionaries voiced the prejudice that blacks by nature did not value marriage.
But the Civil Rights Act of 1866 opened the way for overcoming these impediments by affirming black rights to make contracts of all kinds. Southern states were forced to make provisions in new laws that recognized black marriages.
By the end of the 19th century, marriage for blacks was no longer a right contested. It was one of the few legal rights safe from revocation, which heightened its eminence all the more.
Again we find ourselves at a crossroads in the pursuit of universal marriage equality. It is telling that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is citing a 1913 statute that opposed interracial marriage in his effort to disqualify the gay marriages of out-of-state residents. Old tactics and old prejudices die hard.
Whether or not you support the extension of marriage rights to gays and lesbians, that position cannot contravene the basic facts of this nation's history.
Marriage has always been a civil right.
Tera W. Hunter teaches history at Carnegie Mellon University. She is the author of "To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors After the Civil War" (Harvard University Press, 1997). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.