Love, Marriage, and Divorce (1853/1889)

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



LMD-7.1 MR. JAMES declines answering my questions on the ground that I expressed indifference between him and another party. I did not express any indifference to the information which I sought from him. By this expert quibble he gracefully waves aside queries to which it is simply impossible for him to reply, without committing himself, by inevitable sequence, to conclusions which he seems either not to have the willingness or the courage to avow. It would be cruel to insist any further. So let Mr. James pass. Before doing so, however, since he charges “fallacies and misconceptions” upon my article, and refers me obliquely to his replies in The Observer, permit me to recapitulate the positions at which he has tarried temporarily while boxing the circle of possibilities in that discussion. I quote from Mr. James’ various articles on the subject.
LMD-7.2 Position No. 1. “Marriage means nothing more and nothing less than the legal union of one man and one woman for life.” “It does not mean the voluntary union of the parties, or their mutual consent to live together durante placito” (during pleasure), “but simply a legally or socially imposed obligation to live together durante vita” (during life).
LMD-7.3 That is to say, if I understand, that it is “the base legal bondage,” or “outward force,” which characterizes the union, and not the internal or spiritual union of loving hearts which constitutes the Marriage.
LMD-7.4 Position No. 2. “It is evident 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.” “No doubt there is a very enormous clandestine violation of the Marriage bond” [legal bond, of course, as he has defined Marriage] “at the present time ... The only possible chance for correcting it depends upon fully legitimating Divorce ... because, in that case, you 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.” “You must know many married partners who, if the Marriage Institution” [the legal bond] “were formally abolished to-morrow, would instantly annul that legal abolition again by the unswerving constancy of their hearts and lives.” That is, without Marriage.
LMD-7.5 Position No. 3. “I have ... contended for greater Freedom of Divorce on these grounds; ... but I had no idea that I was thus weakening the respect for Marriage. I seemed to myself to be plainly strengthening it,” etc. “It seemed to me the while, that I was saying as good a word for Marriage as was ever said beneath the stars.”
LMD-7.6 To resume: These three positions are, if language means any thing, as follows:
LMD-7.7 1. The whole and sole substance of Marriage is the legal bond or outward force which unites the parties for life.
LMD-7.8 2. This legal bond or outward force is a diabolical element, and should be wholly abolished and dispensed with.
LMD-7.9 3. By dispensing with Marriage altogether – that is, with all outward form or legal bond – you do thereby strengthen the respect for Marriage, and purify and sanctify the Institution!
LMD-7.10 Position No. 4. Goes a step further, if possible, in absurdity, and proposes not merely to allow parties to unmarry themselves ad libitum [Online editor’s note: “freely,” “at pleasure.” – RTL], but to still further purify what remains of Marriage (after the whole of it is abolished) by turning disorderly members out, as they turn members out of church. See last article, passim.
LMD-7.11 Position No. 5. Entreats of the Editor of The Observer to let him off from the discussion – declines to answer my interrogatories – and, to make a verb of one of his pet substantives, he cuttle-fishes, by a final plunge into metaphysical mysticism.
LMD-7.12 When a writer, claiming distinction as a philosophical essayist, is content to rest his reputation upon a collation of his avowed positions such as the above, culled from his own statements made during the course of a single discussion, he shall not be compelled by any “shade of impropriety” on my part, to undertake the distasteful task of disentangling himself from the perplexing embroglio.
LMD-7.13 Dismissing Mr. James, permit me now to pay attention to your opinions. You, at least, I think, have the pluck to stand by your own conclusions, unless you are fairly driven off from them.
LMD-7.14 You affirm, with great truth, while you deplore it, that this is preëminently an age of “Individualism,” wherein the “Sovereignty of the Individual” – that is, “the right of every one to do pretty much as he pleases” – is already generally popular, and obviously gaining ground daily. Let us, then, define our positions. If I mistake in assigning you yours, you are quite competent to correct me. You declare yourself a reactionist against the obvious sprit of the age. You take your position in opposition to the drift – I think you will find it the irresistible drift – of that social revolution which you recognize as existing and progressing toward Individualism and the Sovereignty of the Individual. You rightly refer Free Trade, Freedom of the Finances, Freedom from State systems of Religion and Education, and Freedom of the Love Relations, to one and the same principle, and that principle you recognize as the Spirit of the Age – the spirit of this, the most progressive and advanced age in the world’s history. To this element of progression you put yourself in a hostile attitude. You rightly say that all these varieties of Freedom “find their basis and element in that idea of ‘Individual Sovereignty’ which seems to us alike destructive of social and personal well-being.” I rejoice that you so clearly perceive the breadth and comprehensiveness of that principle, and that all the ruling questions of the day are merely branches of one and the same question, namely, whether the “Sovereignty of the Individual,” or, what is the same thing, the individual right of self-government, be a safe or a dangerous principle. This will greatly narrow the limits of the discussion; besides, it is much pleasanter to reason about general principles with one who is capable of grasping them, than to be carried over an ocean of particulars, apparently different, but really belonging to the same category.
LMD-7.15 This same principle of Individual Sovereignty, which to you seems destructive alike of social and personal well-being, is to me the profoundest, and most valuable, and most transcendently important principle of political and social order and individual well-being ever discovered or dreamed of. Now, then, we differ. Here, at the very start, is an illustration of Individuality, or diversity of opinion, and, growing out of that, of action also. We are both, I believe, equally honest lovers of the well-being of our fellow-men; but we honestly differ, from diversity of organization, intellectual development, past experiences, etc. Who, now, is the legitimate umpire between us? I affirm, that there is none in the universe. I assert our essential peerage. I assert the doctrine of non-intervention between individuals precisely as you do, and for the same reasons that you do, between nations, as the principle of peace, and harmony, and good fellowship. Upon my principle, I admit your complete sovereignty to think and act as you choose or must. I claim my own to do likewise. I claim and I admit the right to differ. This is simply the whole of it. No collision, no intervention can occur between us, so long as both act on the principle, and only to prevent intervention when either attempts to enforce his opinion upon the other. How now is it with your principle? You determine, you being judge, that my opinions are immoral, or that the action growing out of them would be injurious to other living individuals, or even to remote posterity. You, as their self-constituted guardian, summon to your aid the majority of the mob, who chance to think more nearly with you than with me for the nonce; you erect this unreflecting mass of half-developed mind, and the power thence resulting, into an abstraction which you call “The State,” and with that power at your back, you suppress me by whatever means are requisite to the end – public odium, the prison, the gibbet, the hemlock, or the cross. A subsequent age may recognize me as a Socrates or a Christ, and, while they denounce your conduct with bitterness, never yet discover the falsity of the principle upon which you honestly acted. They go on themselves to the end of the chapter, repeating the same method upon all the men of their day who differ, for good or for evil, from the opinions of that same venerable mob, called “The State.” Or, perchance, the mob, and consequently “The State,” may be on my side – if not now, by-an-by – and then I suppress you. Which, now, of these two, is the principle of order in human affairs? That I should judge for you, and you for me, and each summon what power he may to enforce his opinions on the other; or that each begin by admitting the Individual Sovereignty of the other – to be exercised by each at his own cost – with no limitation short of actual encroachment?
LMD-7.16 With what force, and beauty, and truth does Mr. James assert that “Freedom, in any sphere, does not usually beget disorder. He who is the ideal of Freedom is also the ideal of order.” He seems, indeed, wonderfully endowed by the half-light of intuition to discover the profoundest truths and to clothe them in delightful forms of expression. It I lamentable to see how, when he applies his intellect to deduce their conclusions, they flicker out into obscurity and darkness. You see, on the contrary, that this simple statement alone involves the while doctrine that I have ever asserted of Individual Sovereignty. Hence the line of argument as between you and me is direct, while with him it leads nowhere. Your positions are intelligible; so I think are mine; Mr. James’ are such as we find them. I am a Democrat. You, though not a Despotist consciously, and calling yourself as Progressive, are as yet merely a Republican; Republicanism, when analyzed, coming back to the same thing as Despotism – the arbitrary right of the mob, called the State, over my opinions and private conduct, instead of that of an individual despot. I am no sham Democrat. I believe in no Government of majorities. The right of self-government means with me the right of every individual to govern himself, or it means nothing. Do not be surprised if I define terms differently from the common understanding. I shall make myself understood nevertheless.
LMD-7.17 There are in this world two conflicting principles of government. Stripped of all verbiage and all illusion, they are simply – 1st. That Man is not capable of governing himself, and hence needs some other man (or men) to govern him. 2. That Man is capable of self-government, potentially, and that if he be not so actually, he needs more experience in the practice of it, including more evil consequences from failure; that he must learn it for himself, as he learns other things; that he is entitled of right to his own self-government, whether good or bad in the judgment of others, whenever he exercises it at his own cost – that is, without encroachment upon the equal right of others to govern themselves. This last is the doctrine of the Sovereignty of the Individual, which you denounce and oppose, and which I defend. It is simply the clear understanding, with its necessary extension and limitations, of the affirmation in the American Declaration of Independence, that “all men are entitled to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The principle of Protestantism is the same in the religious sphere, “the right of private judgment in matters of faith and conscience.” Either assertion includes virtually and by direct consequence the whole doctrine of the Sovereignty of the Individual, or “the right of men to do pretty much as they please.” The right or wrong of this principle, dimly understood heretofore, has been the world’s quarrel for some centuries. Clearly and distinctly understood, with the full length of its reach before men’s eyes, it is to be the world’s quarrel ever hereafter, until it is fairly and finally settled. All men are now again summoned to take sides in the fight, with the new light shed upon the length and breadth of the quarrel, by the development of modern ideas, and especially by Socialism, which you, Sir, have done something to foster. Let those who wish to draw back do so now. Hereafter there will be less and less pretext of misunderstanding or incautious committal to the side of Freedom.
LMD-7.18 Still, you are not upon the opposite side in this contest. So far as any guiding principle is concerned, it seems to me that you, in common with the great mass of Progressives, or half-way Reformers in the world, are simply without any – which you are willing to trust. The Conservatives are a great deal better off. So far as you adopt a principle at all, it is generally that of this very Individual Sovereignty, which, nevertheless, you fear in its final carrying out; and hence you join the Reaction whenever the principle assets a new one of its applications. The petty despot and the comfortable bourgeois, in Europe, fear, from the same stand-point, in the same manner, just as honestly, and with just as good reason, the Freedom of the Press.
LMD-7.19 A liberty which any body else in the universe has a right to define, is no liberty for me. a pursuit of happiness which some despot, or some oligarchy, or some tyrannical majority, has the power to shape and prescribe [Online editor’s note: “proscribe” in the first edition, presumably by error. – RTL] for me, is not the pursuit of my happiness. Statesmen, Politicians, Religious Dissenters, and Reformers, who have hitherto sanctioned the principle of Freedom, have not seen its full reach and expansion; hence they become Reactionists, Conservatives, and “Old Fogies,” when the whole truth is revealed to them. They find themselves getting more than they bargained for. nevertheless, the principle, which already imbues the popular mind instinctively, though not as yet intellectually, will not wait their leave for its development, nor stop at their bidding. Hence all middle men, far more than the conservatives, are destined in this age to be exceedingly unhappy.
LMD-7.20 A mere handful of individuals, along with myself, do now, for the first time in the world, accept and announce the Sovereignty of the Individual, with all its consequences, the principle of Order as well as of Liberty and Happiness among men, and challenge its acceptance by mankind. The whole world is drifting to our position under the influence of forces too powerful to be resisted, and we have had merely the good or ill fortune to arrive intellectually at the common foal in advance of the multitude. It gives us at least this happiness, that we look with pleasure and a sense of entire security upon the on-coming of a revolution, which to others is an object of terror and dismay. In our view, the ultra-political Democrat of our day, has only half taken his lessons in the rightful expansion of human freedom. He, too, is, relatively to us, an “old Fogy.” Nor do we trust the safety of the final absence of Legislation to any vague notions of the natural goodness of man. We are fully aware that no sum total of good intentions, allowing them to exist, amount to a guarantee of right action. We trust only to the rigid principles of Science, which analyzes the causes of crime, and neutralizes the motive which now induce or provoke men to commit it.
LMD-7.21 You speak in the most hopeless manner of the final removal of murder from the face of the earth. Do you reflect that already among us, one-half of the crimes of the Old World, or of other countries, are entirely unknown as crimes. Such are lèse majesté and heresy, the utterance of treason, etc. Thirty hours’ ride south of us, the crime which actually shocks the public mind more than any other is Negro-Stealing. Throughout the Southern States it is pretty much the only crime that is rigorously punished. Here it is unknown, even by name, among the common people. What, now, is the cause of this wonderful phenomenon – that one-half of the known crimes of the world are actually gone out and extinguished in this the freest spot (observe the fact) upon the face of the earth? It is simply this, that the artificial institutions against which these crimes are but the natural protest of oppressed and rebellious humanity, have themselves gone out – not, as is thoughtlessly supposed, to be replaced by better institutions, but by the absence of institutions – by the natural and untrammeled action of Individuals in a state of freedom. There is no lèse majesté, because there is no institution of majesty to be insulted or offended; there is no heresy, because there is no instituted or established church; there is no verbal treason, because there is so little of government that it seldom provokes resistance, and can afford to wait till the resistance becomes overt; there is no negro-stealing, because there is no institution of Slavery; there is no publication of incendiary documents as a crime, because there is no institution so conscious of its own security as to construe freedom of the press into a crime; there will be no Seduction, and no Bigamy, and no Adultery, when there is no legal or forceful institution of Marriage to defend – when Woman is recognized as belonging to herself and not to a husband – when she is expected simply to be true to herself and not to any man, except so far as such fidelity results from fidelity to herself as the prior condition, of which she alone of all human beings is a competent judge; and when, by the principle of “Commercial Equity,” which, thanks to the same Science of Society, is now known in the world, Woman shall be placed upon a footing of entire pecuniary independence of man and installed in the actual possession, as well as admitted to the right, of being an Individual.
LMD-7.22 There is already far less murder among us than elsewhere in the world, because there are less institutions to be offended against. With still less institutions there will be still less murder, and with the addition of equitable relations between Capital and Labor, there will be none. Crime is just as much a matter of cultivation as potatoes. The way to produce it and the way to prevent it is a matter of Science, just as much as any chemical process. Chemical processes go on an fail to go on in nature without our knowledge, but we can learn them and hasten or prevent them. Crime springs solely from two causes: 1. The existence of arbitrary institutions, and the ignorant and false ideas in men’s minds growing out of our relation to those institutions, whereby acts are construed to be crimes, which, by the institutes of natural law, are no crimes; and, 2. The denial of Equity, growing out of ignorance of the scientific principle of equity, and out of the want of sufficient intelligence and expansion of the intellect to enable men to see that their interests lie in adopting and acting upon that principle, when known. In other words, out of the denial of the Sovereignty of the Individual in all things, and out of a false or unscientific commercial system.
LMD-7.23 I see clearly, and even sympathize with, while I do not partake of, the fears of the conservative and half-way progressive, from the growth of the Sovereignty of the Individual. Still further, I recognize that evils and disorderly conduct grow out of its growth, when unattended, as it is hitherto, by “Equity” in the distribution of the burdens and benefits of life. But I see just as clearly that the remedy for those evils does not lie in the direction of Repression or forcible constraint, but in the acceptance and addition of an entirely new principle of order – not in going backward to a system which has been tried, and disastrously failed, for thousands of years, but in going forward to the discovery and application of a new and efficacious system.
LMD-7.24 You expressly acknowledge – you can not but acknowledge – that Marriage does not work well for all the parties concerned – only for some of them; and the first must be content to sacrifice their life-long happiness and well-being for the good of the others. No such system will ever content the world, nor ever should. It does not meet the wants of man. Your line of reasoning is after the old sort – that the State exists not for the good of this or that individual, but for the good of all – when you begin by admitting that the good of all is not secured. You are, of course, aware that this is the argument of every despot and despotism in the world, under which the liberties of mankind have always been stolen. The argument is the same, and just as good in the mouth of Louis Napoleon as it is in yours. It is just as good a reason for depriving me of the Freedom of the Press, as it as it is when urged as a reason for depriving me of freedom in the most sacred affections of the heart. The most stupendous mistake that this world of ours has ever made, is that of erecting an abstraction, the State, the Church, Public Morality according to some accepted standard, or some other ideal thing, into a real personality, and making it paramount to the will and happiness of the Individual.
LMD-7.25 So much for principles. Now, there is another thing in the world which is called Expediency, which is just as right and just as good a thing, in its place, as Principle. Principle indicates the True and Right toward which we are to aim, and which we are finally to attain – Expediency, what we are to do provisionally, or as the next best thing, in the midst of the wrong by which we are surrounded, while working to vindicate Principle, or to secure the final right. If your tariff doctrines, for example, and other repressive measures, were put fairly on the basis of expediency, or present exigency, and admitted to be wrong in principle, evils themselves, to be zealously overthrown as soon as practical, I might go a great way along with you. Extremes meet. Ultra and intelligent Radicalism has many points of relationship to rigid Conservatism. Its surface action is often just the reverse of its deeper and more persistent movement. You certainly do not mean to assert that Free Trade is a wrong thing in itself – that it is a breach of one of Nature’s laws, a thing to be feared and defended against, if the whole world were dealing fairly and honestly in the reward of Labor, and in their interchanges with each other. You mean that, because the European capitalist deals with his laborer upon such terms as render him a pauper, American laborers are compelled, by their wrong, to resort to another wrong, and refuse to buy those starvation products, in order to protect their own labor from the same depression through the medium of competition. They are compelled by the wrong of others to deprive themselves of one right, as an expediency, to secure themselves in the possession of another right. Hence you are found defending a tariff on the ground that it is the most speedy avenue to Free Trade with safety – Free Trade and safety being both goods to be sought after and attained.
LMD-7.26 So, again, you do not and can not mean that the time is never to come when woman shall possess the Freedom to bestow herself according to the dictates of her own affections, wholly apart from the mercenary considerations of shelter, and food, and raiment, and to choose freely at all times the father of her own child. You do not, of course, mean that the free play and full development, and varied experience of the affections is intrinsically a bad thing, any more than the development of the bodily strength or of the intellect; but only that it is bad relatively to the present depressed and dependent condition of the woman; just as intellectual development is a misfortune to the slave, only tending to render him unhappy, until the final period approaches for his emancipation. You certainly do not believe that Human Society, in the highest state of well-being it is destined to attain, is ever to be attended by an army of martyrs, who must sacrifice their own highest happiness and “the highest happiness of all the parties immediately concerned,” to the security and well-being of somebody else not remotely interested.
LMD-7.27 Do you or do you not, then, advocate restrictions upon the exercise of the affections, as you do the tariff, merely as a means of arriving the more speedily at complete “Free Trade?”
LMD-7.28 Dismiss, I entreat you, all your fears of the Sovereignty of the Individual. Cherish it rather as the glorious realization of the golden age of the future. Instead of whitewashing Repression, and Reaction, and Martyrdom, and holding them up as things to admire, and love, and fight for, resort to them, if you must, as the unlovely expedients of the bad ages that are past or passing away. Fight for and defend, if you so judge right, as present necessities of the times, the Censorship of the Press, the police Organization of Domestic Spies upon word and act, the Passport system, Tariffs, prohibition of Divorce, laws regulating the Affections of Men and Women, Maine Liquor laws, and the whole system of arbitrary constraint upon Individual Freedom; but cherish in your heart, nay, proclaim openly, as the ideal, not of a remote, uncertain, and fanciful Utopia, but of the imminent, of the actually dawning future, Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of locomotion, Free Trade, Freedom of Intellectual Inquiry, and Freedom of the Affections. Defend your restrictions upon the only ground upon which they are tolerable; namely, that a temporary enforced Order is only the more direct road to the more perfect Order of complete Freedom. Pursue that road, or any road which in your judgment will bring you fastest and farthest toward Universal Freedom, or the Sovereignty of the Individual – not rashly but surely, not inexpediently but expediently, not dangerously but safely, and wisely, and well. It is this Freedom which the whole world aspires after. It is the dream of Universal Humanity, whether men or women. It is the goal of all reformation, and the most sublime and the most beautiful hope of the world.
LMD-7.29 You refer to my position on the marriage question as well understood. Unfortunately it is not so, and can not be so, if that question is considered by itself. I have no special doctrine on the subject of Marriage. I regard marriage as being neither better nor worse than all other of the arbitrary and artificial institutions of Society – contrivances to regulate nature instead of studying her laws. I ask for the complete emancipation and self-ownership of Woman, simply as I ask the same for Man. The “Woman’s Rights Women” simply mean this, or do not yet know what they mean. So of Mr. James. So of all reformers. The Observer is logical, shrewd, and correct, when it affirms that the whole body of reformers tend the same way, and bring up sooner or later against the legal or prevalent theological idea of Marriage. It is not, however, from any special hostility to that institution, but from a growing consciousness of an underlying principle, the inspiring soul of the activities of the present age – the Sovereignty of the Individual. The lesson has to be learned that Order, combining with Freedom, and ultimating in Harmony, is to be the work of Science, and not of arbitrary legislation and criminal codes. Let the day come!


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