Love, Marriage, and Divorce (1853/1889)

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



NEW YORK, Friday, Nov. 26, 1852.

LMD-2.1 I have read with some interest a recent article in The Tribune, by HENRY JAMES, in reply to an “assault” upon him, made by the Editor of The New York Observer, on the Marriage Question. Perhaps it would be discourteous to say that, in relation to the issue of the conflict between these parties, I am quite indifferent. My own opinions differ considerably from those avowed by either of the contestants. My curiosity is piqued, however, by the positions assumed by Mr. James, to see how he will maintain himself, and I find myself given over to a sort of “hope-I-don’t intrude” propensity to ask questions. Without venturing on polemics, I may perhaps be allowed, as a third party, the Socratic privilege of propounding difficulties and seeking for further information.
LMD-2.2 It was a saying of Daniel Webster that “if a thing is to be done, a wise man should be able to tell how it is to be done.” Hence, I can not but hope that Mr. James may be able to remove some of the darkness which obscures my perceptions of the tenability of his positions. I confess that, comparing my recollections of his earlier writings in The Harbinger and The Tribune upon the same subject with the somewhat rampant and ferocious morality of a recent article in The Tribune, in review of the book of Dr. Lazarus, called Love vs. Marriage, which I attributed to his pen, I said to myself, “My friend, Mr. James, is certainly coming up on both sides of the same question.” But I now stand corrected. This still more recent manifesto defines him with respect to his position, if the position itself proves susceptible of definition. He is a “cordial and enlightened respecter of marriage” – a champion, indeed, of the institution of Marriage – but at the same time he is in favor of entire freedom of divorce, “provided only the parties guarantee the State against the charge of their offspring.” He is surprised that an intelligent man should “see no other security for the faithful union of husband and wife than that which dates from the police office.” “By freely legitimating Divorce within the limits of a complete guarantee to society against the support of offspring,” you do, according to him, “place the inducement to mutual fidelity no longer in the base legal bondage of the parties merely, but in their reciprocal inward sweetness or humanity.”
LMD-2.3 In affirming all this, it seems to him the while, that “he is saying as good a word for marriage as has ever been said beneath the stars.” He indignantly repudiates all affiliation of his doctrines with the laxer kind of morality, or the systematic enlargement of marital privileges by certain religious sectarians, whom he scornfully pronounces destitute of common sense, for no better cause, so far as he enables us to discover, than that their views differ from his, and whom, he informs us, he, moved by the divine afflatus, lectured for their “disorderly lives.” As Mr. James professes himself ready and apt to instruct the public, and desirous withal to forward “the good time coming” by reforming the abuses of the institution of Marriage, I flatter myself that he can not object to relieving a few doubts and honest difficulties which perplex my understanding of his doctrine upon the subject.
LMD-2.4 These doubts and difficulties are stated in the following list of queries:
LMD-2.5 1. What does Mr. J. understand to be the essential and determining element of marriage, the kernel or sine qua non of the Marriage institution, after the complete removal of the characteristic feature of “legal bondage” or “outward force,” by the repeal of all laws sanctioning and enforcing it, and after the feature of necessary perpetuity is removed by the entire freedom to end the relation by the will of the parties at any instant? Noah Webster informs us that to marry is to “join a man and woman for life, and constitute them man and wife according to the laws and customs of a nation.” Now, any constraint from custom is as much an outward force as a constraint by law, and in case both these species of constraint are removed, that is, if the man and woman are joined with no reference to either, but simply with regard to their mutual or individual choice and wishes – the union occurring not for life, but to be dissolved at the option of the parties – both limbs of the definition are eliminated, reminding one of the oft-quoted expurgation of the tragedy of Hamlet. [Online editor’s note: i.e., “Hamlet without the prince.” – RTL] It seems to me, then, that I am quite in order to call for a new specification of the essentials of Matrimony. But I am forgetting that Mr. J. still provides for the ghost of a legal tie, in the bond to be given as a guarantee to Society against the support of the offspring. This brings me to my second query.
LMD-2.6 2. Why – if the maintenance of the unswerving constancy of husband and wife can be safely intrusted to the guardianship of “their reciprocal inward sweetness or humanity,” with no “base legal bondage” superadded – why may not the care and maintenance of the offspring be, with equal safety, intrusted likewise to that same “inward sweetness or humanity,” without the superaddition of a “base legal bondage,” or “outward force?” If the first of these social relations may with safety, not only, but with positive advantage, be discharged of accountability to the police office, why not the second? Why, indeed, be at the trouble and expense of maintaining a police office at all? Indeed, if I understand Mr. J. rightly, after imposing this limitation upon the absolute freedom of divorce, or, in other words, upon the extinction of legal marriage – ex gratia modestiae [Online editor’s note: “for modesty’s sake” – RTL], perhaps, lest the whole truth might be fitting to be spoken openly – he again dispenses with the limitation itself, and delivers the parental relation over to the same securities to which he has previously consigned the conjugal; for, I find in a subsequent paragraph of the same article the following sentence: “It is obvious to every honest mind that if our conjugal, parental, and social ties generally can be safely discharged of the purely diabolic element of outward force, they must instantly become transfigured by their own inward divine and irresistible loveliness.” Here it is not Marriage only, but the maintenance of offspring also, which is to be intrusted to the “inward sweetness or humanity” of the individuals to whom the relation appeals, which seems to me much the more consistent view of the matter, inasmuch as, if the principle is good for any thing in one case, it is certainly equally applicable in the other. But here, again, we come back to the point I have made above – the query whether Marriage, discharged of all law, custom, or necessary perpetuity, remains Marriage at all? and if so, what is the essential and characteristic element of such Marriage? – upon which point I crave further information.
LMD-2.7 3. If the inception and the dissolution of Marriage is to be left to the option of the parties on such grounds as are stated by Mr. J., is the expansion or construction of the relation also to be abandoned to the altogether private and individual judgment of the same parties in logical deference to the same principle? That is to say, if more than two parties are taken into the conjugal partnership, is that degree of license to be tolerated likewise? or are we still to retain a police office to provide against such cases? We are aware that men have differed in theory and practice in divers ages and nations – between Monogamy and Polygamy, for example – and with all restraints, both of custom and of law removed, possibly they may differ in like manner again. What, then, is to happen under the new regime? Who is to be the standard of proprieties? Is Mr. James’ definition of a “disorderly life” to be my definition because it is his? If not Mr. James’ definition, whose then? What is the limit up to which Man, simply in virtue of being Man, is entitled, of right, to the exercise of his freedom, without the interference of Society, or – which is the same thing – of other individuals? This last, it seems to me, is about the most weighty question concerning human society ever asked, and one which a man who, like Mr. James, attempts to lead the way in the solution of social difficulties, should be prepared to answer by some broader generalization than any which relates to a single one of the social ties, and by some principle more susceptible of definition than a general reference to humanitary sentiment. There are some acts which the individual is authorized to do or not to do, at his own option, and in relation to which other individuals have no right to interfere to determine for him whether he shall or shall not do them; as, for example, whether he shall go personally to the post office or send a boy. There are certain other acts, on the other hand, which the individual can not do without directly authorizing interference, resistance, or constraint, on the part of others. If a man plant his fist in the features of another, or tweak his nose, I take that to be such an act. What, now, is the clear and definable line which Social Science, as understood by Mr. James, reveals, as running between these two classes of acts? If that can be discovered, perchance it may settle the Marriage question, not singly and alone, but along with every other question of human freedom. Hoping that Mr. J. will consent to enlighten me and others by any knowledge he may have upon the subject, I submit my interrogatories.


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