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Love, Marriage, and Divorce (1853/1889)


by Henry James, Sr. (1811-1882), Horace Greeley (1811-1872)
and Stephen Pearl Andrews (1812-1886)


III.

MR. GREELEY’S COMMENTS

LMD-3.1 Having given place to the essays on Marriage and Divorce by Mr. Henry James, in reply to attacks upon him in The Observer, we have concluded to extend like hospitality to the queries of Mr. S. P. Andrews, suggested by and relating to the essays of Mr. James. Our own views differ very radically from those of both these gentlemen; but we court rather than decline discussion on the subject, and are satisfied that the temper and tendencies of our times render such discussion eminently desirable, if not vitally necessary.
LMD-3.2 This is preëminently an age of Individualism (it would hardly be polite to say Egotism) wherein “the Sovereignty of the Individual” – that is, the right of every one to do pretty nearly as he pleases – is already generally popular, and visibly gaining ground daily. “Why should not A. B., living on our side of the St. Lawrence, and making hats, exchange them freely with C. D., living on the Canada side, and growing wheat, without paying a heavy impost or violating a law?” – “Why should not E. F. led his money at ten or twenty per cent. to G. H., if the latter is willing to pay that rate, and sees how he can make more by it?” – “Why may not I. J. educate his own children, if he see fit, and decline paying any School Tax?” – “And why should not John Nokes and Lydia Nokes be at liberty to dissolve their own marriage, if they have no children, or have provided for such as they have, and believe that they may secure happiness in new relations which is unattainable in the present?” These questions all belong to the same school, though the individuals who ask them may be of superficially different creeds or persuasions. They all find their basis and aliment in that idea of Individual Sovereignty which seems to us destructive alike of social and personal well-being.
LMD-3.3 The general answer to these questions imports that the State does not exist for the advantage and profit of this or that individual, but to secure the highest good of all, – not merely of the present, but of future generations also; and that an act which, in itself, and without reference to its influence as a precedent, might be deemed innocent, is often rendered exceedingly hurtful and culpable by its relation to other acts externally indistinguishable from it. A hundred cases might be cited in which the happiness of all the parties immediately concerned would be promoted by liberty of divorce; and yet we have not a doubt that such liberty, if recognized and established, would lead to the most flagrant disorders and the most pervading calamities. We insist, then, that the question shall be considered from the social or general rather than the individual standpoint, and that the experience, the judgment, and the instincts of mankind shall be regarded in framing the decision.
LMD-3.4 Polygamy is not an experiment to be first tried in our day; it is some thousands of years old; its condemnation is inscribed on the tablets of Oriental history; it is manifest in the comparative debasement of Asia and Africa. The liberty of divorce has been recognized by great historians as one main cause of the corruption and downfall of the Roman Empire. The sentiment of chastity becomes ridiculous where a woman is transferred from husband to husband, as caprice or satiety may dictate.
LMD-3.5 Two persons desire to be joined in Marriage, and invoke the sanction of the State – in other words, the approbation and respect of the community – for their union. The State substantially asks them: “Is there no impediment to such union in the existing engagements of one or both of you?“ – “No.” – “Does your knowledge of and affection for each other warrant you in promising to love and cherish each other exclusively as husband and wife till death shall part you?” – “Yes.” – “Then we pronounce and consecrate you man and wife, and enjoin all persons to honor you as such.” And this is marriage, “honorable in all,” and always honored accordingly, because it recognizes and provides for the permanent claims of society in the preservation of moral purity and the due maintenance and education of children; while any sexual union unsanctified by the mutual pledge of perpetuity or continuance ever has been and ever must be esteemed ignoble and dishonoring when contrasted with this; for its aims are manifestly selfish and its character undistinguishable from the purely sensual and brutal connections of undisguised lewdness, where no pretence of affection or esteem is set up, and whose sole object is animal gratification. In other words, society, by the institution of indissoluble marriage, exacts of the married the strongest practical guarantee of the purity and truth of their affection, and thereupon draws the broadest possible line of demarcation between them and the vile crew whose aspirations are purely selfish, and whose unions are dissolved, renewed, and varied as versatility or satiety may dictate.
LMD-3.6 We have no doubt this wise law, while essential to the progress of the race in intelligence and virtue, is eminently conducive to the happiness of individuals. True, there are unhappy marriages, discordant marriages, unions sanctioned by law which lack the soul of marriage – but these occur, not through any inherent vice or defect in the institution, but through the levity, rashness, avarice, or over-mastering appetite of one or both of the parties, when the law counsels deliberation and demands pure affection. If a general proclamation were issued tomorrow, with the sanction of all our civil and ecclesiastical authorities, authorizing every married couple to obtain a divorce by merely applying for it within two months, and, in default of such asking, to remain undivorced ever afterward, we do not believe one couple in ten would apply for divorce. But let it be understood that marriages would hereafter be sanctioned and honored, biding the parties to regard each other as husband and wife only so long as should be mutually agreeable, and leaving them at perfect liberty to dissolve this tie and form new ones at pleasure, and we believe marriages would be contracted and dissolved with a facility and levity now unimagined. Every innocent young maiden would be sought in marriage by those who no plot her ruin without marriage, and the facility of divorce would cover the arts and designs of the libertine with all the panoply of honorable and pure affection. How many have already fallen victims to the sophistry that the ceremony of marriage is of no importance, – the affection being the essential matter? How many are every day exposed to this sophistry? Marriage indissoluble may be an imperfect test of honorable and pure affection, – as all things human are imperfect, – but it is the best the State can devise; and its overthrow would result in a general profligacy and corruption such as this country has never known and few of our people can adequately imagine.
LMD-3.7 We are inflexibly opposed, therefore, to any extension of the privileges of divorce now accorded by our laws; but we are not opposed to the discussion of the subject. On the contrary, we deem such discussion vitally necessary and already too long neglected. The free trade sophistry respecting marriage is already on every libertine’s tongue; it has overrun the whole country in the yellow-covered literature which is as abundant as the frogs of Egypt and a great deal more pernicious. It is high time that the press, the pulpit, and every other avenue to the public mind, were alive to this subject, presenting, reiterating, and enforcing the argument in favor of the sanctity, integrity, and perpetuity of marriage.




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