Single-Perspective Narratives and the Politics of Marriage History

scotus-obergefell-ahaEarlier this month, the American Historical Association announced that it had signed a Supreme Court amicus curiae brief in support of legal same-sex marriage.[1] This well-written, scholarship-rich brief was apparently drafted by Nancy Cott, and it was signed by many other distinguished historians of marriage.

In discussions that followed on Twitter, some professional historians who were happy with this brief (as I imagine most were) told me they supported it on the basis of historians’ collective interest in historical accuracy. History has been distorted, they argued, by conservative arguments—specifically, by conservatives’ appeals to what marriage has supposedly always been like. They agreed with the AHA that conservatives have advanced not only an unconvincing interpretation but also a set of demonstrably false claims.[2] Specifically, it seems, they think it’s false to say that marriage historically “serv[ed] any single, overriding purpose.”[3]

As I see it, however, the AHA/HOM brief replaces one myth of unity with another. Going beyond a statement of facts about diverse experiences, it strays close to saying that history itself, speaking with a single voice, favors same-sex marriage. “Throughout American history,” it concludes, individual choice in marriage has been part of the liberty “central to the American polity and way of life.” That freedom of choice has expanded during the last century, and “recognizing the right of individuals of the same sex to marry is the next step in this historical trend.”[4]

That statement may well be true. However, to make such a statement on behalf of the entire American historical profession—involving, as it seems, normative and even predictive claims that no amount of historical research can settle—seems extraordinary. It does have procedural precedent. It does not, however, have any regular institutional basis that I know of. The AHA does not, as far as I know, regularly vet the quality of research on the history of marriage. It has no Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for historical claims and no expert panels predicting the rate of climate matrimonial change. (It has encouraged scholars to discuss “historical perspectives” on same-sex marriage, which makes sense, but that’s hardly the same thing.)

There are good reasons the AHA does not ordinarily operate this way. Our discipline—which is really a convergence of several disciplines in the humanities, the social sciences, and even the physical sciences—does not study replicable phenomena or draw conclusions that directly and singlehandedly guide present-day policy.

This means the historical profession always speaks with many voices. It does deal in facts, but these facts have no single professional interpretation. And history’s various interpretations do have policy implications—I certainly don’t mean to say history should be apolitical (or that historians should not file amicus curiae briefs based on their research)—but these implications have to be argued by scholars speaking from various ethical and cultural perspectives, not asserted as the conclusions of historical practice itself.

Aside from initial exchanges on Twitter, I put the whole topic of the AHA/HOM brief aside until reading something else a few days later.

A few days after the AHA signed the brief in Obergefell v. Hodges, Michael Conway published an essay in the Atlantic, arguing that “history is taught in schools” in “a misguided way”:

Currently, most students learn history as a set narrative—a process that reinforces the mistaken idea that the past can be synthesized into a single, standardized chronicle of several hundred pages. This teaching pretends that there is a uniform collective story, which is akin to saying everyone remembers events the same. Yet, history is anything but agreeable. It is not a collection of facts deemed to be “official” by scholars on high. It is a collection of historians exchanging different, often conflicting analyses.

I suspect most professional historians, for most purposes, would agree with Conway about the nature of history. (Whether history teachers would agree with his characterization of American secondary-school pedagogy is a question I can’t answer.) Most professional historians I have known would agree that teaching through historiography—showing students that history is an open-ended way of reasoning from evidence—is generally preferable, though not always practical.

And I’m sure many people who agree with the AHA/HOM brief see their text as defending precisely that sort of open-endedness. They are showing that American history reveals that our institutions have had many purposes, that human ideas are made and remade over time, and that simple narratives may not capture the complexity of human practices. These are all important things to say, and contemporary scholarship on the history of marriage amply bears them out.

In the end, though, I think the AHA/HOM amicus brief sends a larger message about the practice of history that undermines its own message about history’s conclusions.

To state the banal truth that marriage has existed for many purposes is not to show that historical research can establish what its most important purpose is. Yet this is what the brief seems to claim. In an apparent act of self-contradiction, it implies that historians have concluded marriage does have an enduring ultimate basis:

The basis of marriage is voluntary consent between the couple, their free choice of one another for love (a value explicitly enshrined in American ideals since the era of the American Revolution), and the couple’s acknowledged right to create a private haven in their home are all aspects of the personal liberty associated with marriage.[5]

As much as contemporary Americans tend to view personal liberty and romantic love as timeless, these are philosophically fraught concepts that exist in history too. By endorsing these things, in lieu of procreation, as the ultimate basis of marriage throughout American history—and the proper overriding purpose of marriage today—the AHA seems to make the same mistake it says marriage conservatives have made.

Unlike marriage conservatives, however, the AHA/HOM brief claims to speak for the American historical profession as a whole. If we wish to model sound historical thinking in the course of public engagement—including debates over history’s implications for the future of marriage—that seems like a small step in the wrong direction.

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[1] The AHA/HOM brief (PDF) has two clear purposes: It “aims to provide accurate historical perspective as the [U.S. Supreme] Court considers state purposes for marriage” (2), and it condemns lower court rulings that hold the U.S. Constitution does not require marriage rights for homosexual couples (“The judgment of the court of appeals should be reversed,” 24). In other words, it is clear that the brief takes a position on constitutional interpretation and on same-sex marriage itself as policy, not on historiography alone.

[2] Here I think the brief mischaracterizes the position it criticizes, which (in the relevant documents I have seen) does not claim that marriage has ever existed “exclusively” for one purpose (4)—only that the purpose of procreation/childrearing has consistently been a crucial purpose for marriage. I have never seen an opponent of same-sex marriage argue that marriage historically has had only one purpose.

[3] AHA/HOM brief, 4. Whether procreation/childrearing is the “predominant” (2) or “overriding” purpose of marriage throughout American history, I think, cannot be treated as a question of historical fact. It requires judgments about the hierarchy of values in people’s minds, including the minds of many people who left no relevant records. It also requires inherently presentist judgments about the meaning of laws, since “predominance” of purpose is a claim about a law’s meaning in hindsight as well as its meaning in the minds of dead people. In any case, none of the specific evidence discussed in the brief seems to refute the claim that procreation/childrearing has been the predominant purpose of marriage.

[4] Ibid., 23-24.

[5] Ibid., 7.

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