The Marital Foundations of the Republic

In the opening pages of A New Birth of Marriage, Brandon Dabling recounts the words of Henry Lee at the funeral of George Washington. Lee’s words are well-known to this day but, as Dabling laments, the second half of the sentence is often abridged. Lee noted that Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” But he also observed that “he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life.” 

This sentence and its remembrance in history are a microcosm of Dabling’s overarching argument—that the Founders viewed society and human flourishing as supported by the twin pillars of the public and domestic, and that our modern dialogues remember the Founders’ commitment to the former more than the latter. The Founders’ commitment to the domestic, Dabling maintains, is clear in their understanding of marriage, the central institution of domestic life, and the institutions they created to uphold that understanding. Dabling argues that the “new birth of marriage” established by the Founding, which for the first time married the classical understanding of marriage with liberal ideas about human nature, persisted despite growing opposition until the 1960s. According to Dabling, this vision for marriage was not only the Founders’ understanding of marriage, but also the proper understanding of marriage to which American society must return if it is to correct its most serious social and political maladies.

Dabling argues that the Founders rooted their understanding of marriage in what he terms “courageous love.” Courageous love in marriage seeks to preserve marital unity—the idea that spouses should function as one in all matters of life. Dabling identifies five principles in the thought of the Founders that uphold marital unity, each of which stems from various schools of thought. They are as follows: 

  1. Provision for and education of children as a natural result of sex (Plato, Aristotle, Christianity, English Common Law, Locke)
  2. Enduring consent (Aristotle, English Common Law)
  3. Monogamy (Plato, Aristotle, Montesquieu, Christianity)
  4. Sexual equality and differentiated sex roles (Liberalism, Aristotle)
  5. Unification (Christianity)

Dabling argues that marriage as understood by the Founders was a mix of both classical and liberal ideas. This vision of marriage drew a clear line between sexual relations and childrearing responsibilities. It rested on the idea that consent to marriage, once given, was not to be revoked except in the most severe of cases. It held that marriage should be between just one wife and one husband. It recognized domestic life as the equal partner of public life, and in such recognized both sexual equality and sexual differences. And, finally, it held that marriage was to be a courageous choice, in which both man and woman cede some of their personal freedoms and put themselves at great risk by trusting one another enough to become one in word, law, and deed.

Dabling identifies this understanding of marriage in the limited writings from the Founders on marriage, in their examples, and within the design of the institutions they created. It was from this understanding of marriage and love that the Founders by and large outlawed divorce, upheld coverture laws, and prohibited multiple marriages. But because of its mix of classical and liberal ideas, the Founders’ understanding of marriage was not, in Dabling’s view, fixed to their particular time. So long as marital unity was upheld, certain kinds of liberalization posed no threat to the courageous love favored by the Founders. Dabling notes, for example, that the ending of coverture and the liberalization of divorce laws during the Progressive era did not threaten this vision of the Founders, as marital unity remained the social and political heart of marriage.

The perennial opponent of the Founders’ vision of marriage, Dabling avers, takes its roots in what he terms “liberationist love.” While the Founders sought to marry classical traditions and the liberal pursuit of freedom in their conception of marriage, marriage based in liberationist love is the result of the “rolling revolution” of liberalism and a misinterpretation of the Founders as pure Lockean liberals. While Dabling condones the liberalization of some institutions surrounding marriage as compatible with the Founders’ vision, he is wary of the sharp outer edge of liberal ideology and its effects on marriage.      

Based in the desire to preserve individual freedom, liberationist marriage loosens the bonds of marital unity. It disconnects sex from the creation of children, replaces enduring consent with a continuous consent that may be revoked at any time, rejects the necessity of monogamy should it interfere with the freedom of one or both spouses, papers over differentiated sex roles to the detriment of the domestic sphere, and regards the unity of spouses as potentially dangerous to the health and happiness of both. While a complete ideology of liberationist marriage does not, on Dabling’s account, appear to have emerged alongside the Founders’ vision of courageous marriage, his work tracks the emergence of liberationist marriage as a series of historical challenges to the Founders’ vision. 

Even while Dabling calls for a restoration of attention to the domestic sphere, he is careful to note “that the goods of family are preserved is far more important than how it is done.”

The first two chapters of Dabling’s book establish his core argument that American marriage was designed as a political institution based on the upholding of courageous love and marital unity through the five tenets outlined above. The third chapter tracks the legal evolution of marriage from the Founding period through the Progressive era. This period saw increased liberalization through the loosening of divorce restrictions and the rolling back of coverture laws, but maintained the marital vision of the Founding era. Chapters 4-8 lay out the historical opposition to each of the five tenets of marital unity. In these chapters, Dabling imagines the history of marriage in America as a series of challenges to the vision of marriage he ascribes to the Founders. For each of these vignettes, Dabling identifies champions for courageous marriage and champions for liberationist marriage, and details their dialogues and conflicts.

There is much to recommend Dabling’s treatment of these challenges to the Founders’ vision of marriage. From Robert Dale Owen to Margaret Sanger, Dabling discusses the harbingers of liberationist love generously and in good faith. Though he positions himself against underlying ideological motivations of even American heroes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Dabling goes to great lengths not only to refute the liberationist vision of marriage but also to understand the good and logical intentions from which this vision arises. A man writing on a topic that has so intimately (and often so negatively) affected women is often in danger of missing the grander narrative for women; Dabling does not. He understands and sympathizes with the plight of women; he welcomes the liberalization of many aspects of the marriage institution as necessary and asserts that these changes pose no threat to the over-arching vision of the Founders. Dabling asserts that the preservation of principle was more important to the Founders than the means of that preservation. Coverture laws could be discarded, and divorce liberalized to allow women escape from abusive situations, so long as the five tenets of marital unity were upheld, and marital unity remained the heart of the marriage institution.

His argument for the return to courageous marriage does not place the burden for this return on the shoulders of women, but on anyone, male or female, who seeks to undertake such a commitment. Even while Dabling calls for a restoration of attention to the domestic sphere, he is careful to note “that the goods of family are preserved is far more important than how it is done.” Dabling’s wrestling with his ideological opponents is commendable. He does not shy away from the difficult arguments, but meets them head on, assured that courageous marriage is truly the best vision for the institution. In doing so, he creates a compelling case for rediscovering marital unity as the heart of the marriage institution. The Founders had it right, Dabling argues, when they designed institutions that upheld marital unity.

If there is something to critique in Dabling’s work, it is not in his reckoning with challenges to his thesis. Rather, some might take umbrage with the evidentiary support Dabling offers for his argument. Dabling does not quite avoid the perennial trap laid for those who study the American Founding, which is to flatten a group of varied men known as “The Founders” into a monolith. While he does seem to be aware of this bugaboo, only about a dozen people who might be considered Founders appear in the index for this book, with perhaps only half that number providing significant evidence for Dabling’s position (and I am liberal in my creation of this list, even including women such as Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren). This overstatement of his thesis unnecessarily detracts from the strength of Dabling’s argument, which is no less important or significant for stemming from a few important Founders as opposed to the Founders en masse. There is simply no need for this overstatement. While I might caution my fellows in the field to be wary of Dabling’s claim that he has discovered the universally-agreed-upon vision of marriage common to every Founder, I would encourage them to turn to this book as an excellent topical source for the handful of figures that comprise the core of his evidentiary body.

The heart of Dabling’s evidence is really twofold. It lies in the written theory provided by James Wilson (and secondarily John Witherspoon) and the practical example of John and Abigail Adams. The mere biographies of John and Abigail stand as a testament to Dabling’s thesis—they seem to have been the very embodiment of the courageous love and love of liberty that, Dabling suggests, the Founding generation aimed to achieve. Their marriage was a fond and equal one, and it produced an American president. There is much to admire in the Adamses. 

Dabling seems reticent to engage the proverbial elephant in the room as far as Jefferson is concerned: his decades-long sexual abuse of the enslaved Sally Hemings, which resulted in an estimated six children. 

James Wilson, himself a husband twice over and a serious thinker about women’s education and political contributions, provides written theory throughout his Lectures on Law and beyond to support the practical actions of couples like John and Abigail. Wilson’s writings are the ones most frequently cited by Dabling, and this evidence is clear and powerful. These Founders—Wilson as the written theorist and the Adamses and the example par excellence – provide the most evidence that Dabling is onto a real discovery in the history of American political thought.

Not all of Dabling’s evidence holds, however. While Wilson and the Adamses provide compelling evidence for his thesis, Dabling’s treatment of Thomas Jefferson does more to confuse his argument than support it. Dabling presents Jefferson as a man who valued courageous love but found it often in conflict with his political duties. He notes Jefferson’s delaying of official political duties to tend to family emergencies, including his wife’s illnesses. He details Jefferson’s reliance on his family for the affirmation that eluded him in the public sphere. He shows Jefferson to be a man who saw marriage as a high good, on par even with the true love of his life—his political career. But Dabling seems reticent to engage the proverbial elephant in the room as far as Jefferson is concerned: his decades-long sexual abuse of the enslaved Sally Hemings, which resulted in an estimated six children. 

Dabling’s inclusion of Jefferson in the chapters that outline his central thesis would imply that Dabling views Jefferson as a proponent of courageous love and marital unity, which are marked by monogamy, and for which childrearing is the most sacred and honored duty. If this is true, how does it square with his continued extramarital abuse of Hemings and his refusal to acknowledge the children he sired by her? Jefferson rarely acts as cut-and-dried evidence for our theories on the Founding. More often than not, Jefferson is the great confounder. He was a man of contradiction, who frequently wrote one thing and did another, and who seemingly understood the value of certain things (like marriage) without upholding those values in practice. When we do call upon Jefferson to support us, we must do so while considering the ugliest parts of the man—the parts we do not wish to claim but must as a matter of dedication to truth and historical accuracy. Dabling’s inclusion of Jefferson demands this kind of attention; its absence is troubling.

Whatever my critiques of Dabling’s work may be as a fellow student of the American Founding, there is no denying that his work is an original and necessary contribution to this field of study. Arlene Saxonhouse wrote that “a politics abstracted from the female results from defining politics as the public world of power relationships, of diplomacy, of elections, of wars, of the adjudication of conflict: a world in which, until recently, women have seldom found a place. It is a politics that artificially separates a public world from a private world.”  

Dabling’s work indicates that, despite arguments to the contrary, the Founders did not abstract politics from the female, but rather made women central to politics through their views on the institution of marriage. Not only that, but through their promotion of martial unity and courageous love, it seems that the Founders have given us a blueprint for quenching some of our deepest social and spiritual needs. In a world where marriage has lost its vigor as a permanent institution and as the fundamental building block for the domestic pillar of society, Dabling rightly advocates for a renewal of courageous love and recognition of marital unity as the heart of marriage. 

A society that values courageous love and marital unity will uphold a sexual morality that views children as the natural product of sex. It will expect that parents provide for the health, well-being, and education of their children, and impress upon them that the best way to do so is to provide a stable, married household. While marriage is always an implicit assumption of risk, a society that centers on marital unity will renew the idea of enduring consent, to be revoked only in the most serious of circumstances. Such a society will censure marital infidelity and demand monogamy. It will recognize both sexual equality and sexual difference, allowing for men and women to operate on equal terms while recognizing the importance of each partner’s contribution to the other. It will understand marriage to be a true union, in which spouses fully give themselves to one another. More than anything, if our society were to recover marital unity as the heart of marriage, it would once again know courageous love. With the whimsical dissolution of marriage no longer accepted, spouses would once again endure the trials and tribulations of life together for better or worse. 

Dabling does not advocate for a return to the legal system of the Founders in order to accomplish this. Too much has changed, and the Founders’ vision is compatible with changing laws. Instead, Dabling advocates for a social and political re-centering of courageous love, upheld by governmental institutions through means compatible with today’s society. In this, it is essential to recognize that the greatest threat to marital unity and courageous love is the political and social centering of liberationist love. And the pull toward liberationist love is strong because it purports to decrease the risk of love to the individual. Liberationist love prioritizes the individual’s happiness and freedom above the greater goods of family, societal flourishing, and stability. It ensures that marriage poses no threat to even the most whimsical desires of the individual. One may enter in and out of marriage almost as easily as one enters in and out of doors on a summer day. Liberationist love attempts to free love of risk, which humans fear, but real love always involves risk and sacrifice. Courageous love, on the other hand, demands the assumption of risk, but it also provides the best environment for the raising of children, and the permanence and connection that humans crave. It is only through this courageous love, which begets courageous marriage centered on marital unity, that the domestic pillar of society might be rebuilt. By rediscovering the new birth of marriage advanced by the Founders, Dabling avers, we might begin to cure ourselves of our most malignant political and social ills.