Argument: Polygamy sacrifices love between mates to other considerations

Issue Report: Polygamy

Reasons to agree

  • Stanley Kurtz. “Polygamy Versus Democracy. You can’t have both.” The Weekly Standard. June 5th, 2006 – “Why were Americans outraged by polygamy? In a word, because of love. The idea of love as central to marriage, by no means common in the world at large, has a long history in the West, going back to the Bible, notably the letters of Paul. Even so, romantic love as the fundamental pillar of marriage (alongside parenthood, of course) truly came into its own in the mid-nineteenth century. Polygamy was an offense against love, the structural glue of American marriage. To those who valued companionate love, polygamy seemed little better than slavery.
Far from denying this, Mormon theorists openly attacked the romantic sensibility. Polygamist leaders called on Mormons to sacrifice selfish and disruptive romantic desires, building marriages instead on simple friendship and piety. Women who embraced polygamy understood this sacrifice of love as a trial to be endured, if a noble one. Like Muslims today, Mormons touted polygamy as an alternative to prostitution and out-of-wedlock births, and a boon to women facing a dearth of truly marriageable men. And like today’s proponents of same-sex marriage, polygamists and their apologists chided opponents as hypocrites bent on the “consecutive polygamy” of divorce and remarriage.
Yet these arguments fell flat with most Americans, for whom romantic and companionate love was a cardinal aspiration. The Civil War had proven the dangers of fundamental moral differences between regions, and the threat of polygamy was clear. So long as multipartner marriage was deemed legitimate, the ethos of monogamous companionate marriage was at risk.
The problem was neither theoretical nor confined to the Utah Territory. Today we take monogamy for granted. Yet for much of the nineteenth century, monogamy was questioned by “free lovers” on the cultural left, as well as by Mormons on the cultural right. While the Mormon kingdom was growing out west, an array of proto-socialist communal experiments in “free love” were cropping up in other parts of the country. These ventures were widely and heatedly debated. Virtually all free love communities were evanescent. Yet the experiments continued for decades, so that in nineteenth-century America, it was not taken for granted that monogamous marriage would retain its cultural preeminence.
Free love was clearly on the minds of the antipolygamy novelists. And some scholars think a passage in the Reynolds decision may have alluded to the famous Oneida community’s quasi-socialist experiment in “complex marriage.” (Complex marriage involved varied sexual parings, sometimes arranged by request, with the help of third parties, but often assigned by the community’s leader. As a birth control measure, men had to have special permission from the leader to ejaculate during intercourse. Steady pairing within the group was strongly discouraged.) Reynolds had the effect of ending both Mormon polygamy and free love experiments in the rest of the country. It emboldened Oneida’s opponents, and soon after Reynolds the Oneida community itself voted to end complex marriage.
Reynolds resolved America’s monogamy question for a century. Yet it is worth remembering that the issue has been undecided for much of our history. Today’s emerging alternatives of monogamy, “patriarchal” polygamy, and polyamory largely recreate the options of democratic monogamy, theocratic Mormon polygamy, and quasi-socialist free love that warred for decades in the nineteenth century, until the Reynolds court resolved the conflict.
The question is: Did Reynolds actually safeguard the structure of American marriage, and with it our democratic culture? Or–as is so often argued today–was the court’s opposition to multipartner marriage mere bigotry? Consider our best account of the polygamy controversy, Sarah Barringer Gordon’s The Mormon Question (on which I’ve drawn here). Gordon is torn between the impulse to attribute opposition to polygamy to mere prejudice, and a grudging acknowledgment that much of what the critics of polygamy had to say about the old Mormon system was true. The problem is that neither Gordon nor the law professors are inclined to treat arguments about marriage and social structure as anything but rhetoric. The Reynolds Court knew better. And contemporary experience suggests they were right.”
  • John R. Llewellyn, former polygamist. “Polygamy vs. common sense”. Retrieved 4.24.08 – “Love and respect have little value in polygamist marriages. Consequently, men and women have a tendency to rush into the marriage before they really get to know each other. You may think it is love, children and mutual need that holds the marriage together, but if the woman is loyal to the priesthood, it’s the priesthood that is the bonding agent.”
  • Women in polygamous marriages are frequently known to consider marrying a polygamous man because of his wealth and status. Men, in turn, see the size of their “flock” of wives and children as an expression of their power and wealth. Beyond these superficial reasons, there are real practical considerations that women have, such as the fact that they will find friends among “sister wives” and a sense of community. This community, in turn, is also a consideration as far as the sharing of household and “day-care” duties. But, these practical considerations all cloud the main purpose of marriage, which is to consummate love between mates.

Reasons to disagree

  1. Monogamous marriages don’t legally require love; why would polygamous ones? Much of society seems to judge polygamous marriages on the basis that they don’t meet the standards of “love” that are somehow associated with or required in monogamous marriage. This is the premise underlying arguments such as, that it is impossible for a man to love all of his wives in proportion to the way his wives may love him (the premise being that “love” is the point or is required). But, this is a faulty requirement. Love is clearly not a serious tenant of modern monogamous marriages. Many monogamous marriages are based simply on convenience, compatibility, stability, the ability to procreate, money, or other factors that can be seen as mutually beneficial, but have nothing to do with love. So, if monogamous marriages don’t require love (both in social and in legal terms), why should we hold polygamy to such a high standard? This would apply a hypocritical double standard. It is acceptable both legally and socially that polygamous marriages be based on factors other than love. Polygamous marriage are, just like monogamous marriages, about establishing marriage contracts in whatever terms are deemed mutually beneficial by the participating parties.

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