Cleveland on Marriage

A little history lesson, which of course you can interpret any way you like, but I think at least it’s a reminder that social-issue controversy – and strong rhetoric about the importance of marriage – is not a totally new thing in national politics. Here’s a passage from Grover Cleveland’s first State of the Union message, in 1885, at the height of the federal government’s effort to stamp out polygamy (some seven years after the US Supreme Court in Reynolds v US held that it was constitutional to ban polygamy). Mind you, this is a Democratic president who had just been elected in a campaign that featured extensive criticism of the unmarried Cleveland for fathering a child out of wedlock. It’s also an interesting reminder that the Mormon church was compelled, rather literally at gunpoint by the federal government, to abandon its original definition of marriage.
The last line gives you a sense of exactly how hard-line Cleveland was on this issue.

In the Territory of Utah the law of the United States passed for the Suppression of polygamy has been energetically and faithfully executed during the past year, with measurably good results. A number of convictions have been secured for unlawful cohabitation, and in some cases pleas of guilty have been entered and a slight punishment imposed, upon a promise by the accused that they would not again offend against the law, nor advise, counsel, aid, or abet in any way its violation by others.
The Utah commissioners express the opinion, based upon such information as they are able to obtain, that but few polygamous marriages have taken place in the Territory during the last year. They further report that while there can not be found upon the registration lists of voters the name of a man actually guilty of polygamy, and while none of that class are holding office, yet at the last election in the Territory all the officers elected, except in one county, were men who, though not actually living in the practice of polygamy, subscribe to the doctrine of polygamous marriages as a divine revelation and a law unto all higher and more binding upon the conscience than any human law, local or national. Thus is the strange spectacle presented of a community protected by a republican form of government, to which they owe allegiance, sustaining by their suffrages a principle and a belief which set at naught that obligation of absolute obedience to the law of the land which lies at the foundation of republican institutions.
The strength, the perpetuity, and the destiny of the nation rest upon our homes, established by the law of God, guarded by parental care, regulated by parental authority, and sanctified by parental love.
These are not the homes of polygamy.
The mothers of our land, who rule the nation as they mold the characters and guide the actions of their sons, live according to God’s holy ordinances, and each, secure and happy in the exclusive love of the father of her children, sheds the warm light of true womanhood, unperverted and unpolluted, upon all within her pure and wholesome family circle.
These are not the cheerless, crushed, and unwomanly mothers of polygamy.
The fathers of our families are the best citizens of the Republic. Wife and children are the sources of patriotism, and conjugal and parental affection beget devotion to the country. The man who, undefiled with plural marriage, is surrounded in his single home with his wife and children has a stake in the country which inspires him with respect for its laws and courage for its defense.
These are not the fathers of polygamous families.
There is no feature of this practice or the system which sanctions it which is not opposed to all that is of value in our institutions.
There should be no relaxation in the firm but just execution of the law now in operation, and I should be glad to approve such further discreet legislation as will rid the country of this blot upon its fair fame.
Since the people upholding polygamy in our Territories are reenforced by immigration from other lands, I recommend that a law be passed to prevent the importation of Mormons into the country.

21 thoughts on “Cleveland on Marriage”

  1. No, I think it is part of his “originalist” amicus brief to SCOTUS in the coming California Prop 8 case.
    “The sky is falling.”

  2. I am guessing that Magrooder is correct in his assumption about where this is going. If he is correct then this is a sad and horrible post.

  3. Wow – no minced words there. That’s a pretty interesting piece of history. And it was a State of the Union address as opposed to a mere stump speech somewhere. Then again, I can’t imagine there were too many politically significant advocates of polygamy at that time.
    I haven’t really followed the whole Prop 8 issue* nor do I have much exposure to that area of law, but I don’t see why this post is “sad and horrible” if interpreted that way. The implied legal question might be: if it’s constitutional to outlaw polygamy, why is it unconstitutional to ban gay marriage?
    *Part of me doesn’t even want to read press coverage of it, as I’ll likely be irritated to see it analyzed as a political outcome rather than as a legitimate legal issue.

  4. “…if it’s constitutional to outlaw polygamy, why is it unconstitutional to ban gay marriage?”
    Because they aren’t even close to being the same thing. Polygamy is a choice based on a religious belief/philosophy. Marrying someone of the same gender is no different than marrying someone of a different gender. To see it otherwise to the point of constitutionally outlawing is pretty wickedly bigoted.

  5. Jim, I’ve actually heard the argument that allowing same sex marriage will open the floodgates to brothers or sisters being allowed to marry. Could I make that up? And this was from someone fairly well known and public in Republican circles.

  6. I know, it is utterly ridiculous. If this is what this post is about it gives a pretty good idea of what goes on inside the heads of right-wingers. Bad shit.

  7. Jim, it’s getting even crazier. Now they’ve decided to fight the birth control fight again. Not to mention telling Clint Eastwood (who wins many hearts and minds as among both the nicest and brightest people in show biz) he’s just a dupe. So I can’t tell if they are going back to the 1960s or the 1910s to fight the marriage wars or the 19th century to dig for coal again. Any way you look at it, they are marching backwards, ass first and eyes closed.

  8. I hate to break up the orgy of self-congratulations here, but do any of you want to take a crack at the real issue here? Why is it okay for the Federal government to enforce its idea of marriage on one group but wrong to do it on another?
    The government either has this power or it does not. The circumstances are irrelevant.

  9. Sponge, I agree with you (I hope you weren’t drinking anything when you read that). As long as all the parties are over 18 I really don’t give a ding dong who gets married. And if a group of women all want to marry one man, or men with a woman, well, why should I care? It’s the fact that we grant separate civil rights to a heterosexual couple that we don’t to a homosexual couple that I disagree with.
    So if we grant the power of government to enforce rights such as child custody, medical decisions and property transfer, you either do it for everyone or no one.

  10. Jim,
    I agree with you that polygamy and gay marriage aren’t even close to the same thing which is why, in my opinion, the former should be banned but the latter permitted. But being legal and being required by the Constitution are two entirely different things. The Constitution does not require that gay marriage must be allowed.
    I read the Ninth Circuit’s decision and the majority’s opinion is weak and blatantly result-driven It boils down to something like this: California’s constitution existed for over a century without it being interpreted to require gay marriage; the legislature clarified that marriage is limited to a man and a woman; the California Supreme Court then decided that the Constitutition does require gay marriage; California citizens disagreed, so passed a ballot initiative to amend the California Constitution to clarify that it does not require gay marriage. The Ninth Circuit decided not that the US Constitution requires gay marriage – it distinctly avoided that question – but that, once the California Supreme Court decided that the California Constitution did require gay marriage, it violated the US Constitution for California’s voters to change or clarify the California Constitution to not require gay marriage. According to the majoriy, once same-sex couples were granted the right to marry by the courts, it was unconstitutional to change that decision because there is no rational basis to deny gays the right to marry.
    The majority opinion seems flimsy on the Constitutional law, and it raises serious federalism concerns. I think gay marriage should be allowed, but it shouldn’t be forced on the public through a dubious court decision. The abortion debate would probably disappear from politics were it not for Roe v Wade; only in a handful of states would it be a close issue for voters, and in federal elections it would likely cease to be an issue. But because a “right” to abortion was found in a dubious court opinion, federal candidates and politicians feel justified in trying to chip away at that right.

  11. Same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue. Full stop.
    My understanding is the Constitution supports equal rights in the eyes of the law. Not “separate but equal” (civil unions), but “equal”.
    Regarding the right-wing still fighting the birth control war. Really let’s you know that whole “small government” stance is nothing but 100% Grade A bullshit.*
    *As I have stated ALL ALONG.
    Apologies now being accepted by Berto at

  12. After seeing wtd’s post, I’ll have to read the decision. It does not sound like the issue I mentioned was germane to this case, but the question is still valid. The problem is that most people blanch at the idea that polygamy should be allowed, including me.
    If you were going to make a distinction under the US Constitution between polygamy and gay marriage, I have to think it would start and end with monogamy. Meaning, the state’s interest is in protecting monogamous relationships – straight or gay. Polygamy could be banned under this framework, but not monogamous gay marriages.

  13. It’s great to see the true colors come out on all these “small government/get the government out of my life/business, etc.”. When it comes to the gays there isn’t enough government in the world for these folks. Gay marriage leads to polygamy and sibling marriage and sex with animals and so on. The contortionism on this is ludicrous. Hope you’ve been doing the yoga there sponge-baby!

  14. Just keep in mind there are two different arguments about gay marriage – the first is whether the legislature should allow it, and the second is whether banning it is constitutionally permissible. They are two completely different issues.
    If you are going to comment on constitutionality, you can’t just say “polygamy and gay marriage are completely different.” You have to come up with a rational, credible distinction that justifies the Constitution allowing one, yet banning the other.

  15. As a descendent of Mormon polygamists who migrated from overseas, allow me to posit a fairly radical proposition, albeit one shared by virtually the entirety of Western civilization since Roman times. Namely – The institution of marriage is one that is inherently established by the state for the purpose of establishing & encouraging social order & stability based on the nuclear family. Now, we’ve had other societies and their elites institute forms of marriage NOT based on one non-incestuous man & one non-incestuous woman. Witness Cleopatra’s Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, Arabs, the Chinese, Mongols, etc. etc. None, including ones with frequent same sex relationships such as the Greeks & Romans, sanctioned same sex marriages. Marriage has never been a right. It is an institution established by the state under conditions that as a general rule will best promote the productive procreation & raising of a society’s next generation. With apologies to my great great grandmother & aunt (cousins btw) , I’m with Cleveland.

  16. Fair enough smokedaddy. You’ve presented an argument that is clean, but I think wrong, and here is why: If you claim that marriage is promoted by the state to ensure the next generation, that that rationale should not permit marriage, and the inherent civil rights granted, to older couples remarrying. Which would include Rush Limbaugh’s remarrying, and Newt’s also, since, we presume, that they don’t intend to have more children. Nor should we then permit marriages where people don’t have children by choice, or force to separate those couples who can’t have children. Unless, uh, they adopt. Which married couples, both gay and straight could, and do, both do. And if you start the gay couples can’t do parenting well argument, you lose, because there are too many Heather has two moms families that do well, and too damn many Joel Steinbergs out there otherwise.
    You see, the zeitgeist has changed since Grover Cleveland’s time. The so called progressive statements uttered then on race would be considered shockingly racist today. I have to state, flatly, that I haven’t heard an argument yet against gay marriage that isn’t either motivated by a person’s religion (there is that pesky First Amendment to shut you up isn’t there?), and the more coherent, but I think proven wrong argument smokedaddy gave. In the end, the folks most against gay marriage (I said most) are those who fervently are pushing their brand of religion and morality (I bet those against gay marriage are for the fight against contraception in health insurance) on the rest of us. And since you are fervent, you are loud, and let’s face it. Most people would do almost anything for a little peace and quiet.

  17. Daryl:
    I’ll grant you that for Seniors the rationale for becoming newly married is much less strong than it is for couples of child bearing age. The benefits of marriage with respect to strengthening the larger, usually already existing family tend to vary widely and can frequently cause more problems than it helps with respect to inheritance, trust, etc. In fact my experience is that the majority of seniors with existing estates & families are more often than not perfectly happy to live together & keep their partners at arms length from their respective families and estates. Fine. But there are plenty of cases, usually involving an older man and younger woman, where either procreation can still occur or adoption certainly can. Generally to the benefit of the children. In general, I view marriage as a harness, with the woman as the rider and the man as the horse. Ultimately, both the rider and the horse benefit from the arrangement. But men, whether hetero or homosexual, tend not to appreciate being harnessed lacking a damn good reason for it and an appreciation of the uniquely beneficial qualities of a good rider (the female) with respect to the genetically shared children.

  18. No Jim, smokedaddy is not being ridiculous. Bigoted possibly based on ignorance maybe. OK, here is the answer.
    First, you still think the older man/younger woman can still have children “Generally to the benefit of the children,” as you said. Maybe, but that certainly, all by itself, blows you argument out of the water. Because your entire case is predicated on the inherent goodness of the two parent mother/father family. Which in your argument (which is almost as silly as the ‘then brothers can marry’) is plain false. Tony Randall comes to mind. Because when someone much older as a dad has a kid, he is far less likely to be around as the child ages. Meaning he dies, leaving the family to spend time not on growing up together as taking care of the old geezer until he croaks. The rest of your so called argument really is, as Jim just said, silly.

  19. Here is a basic question that needs to be answered before you can really analyze this issue: what is the state’s purpose for the state-controlled institution of marriage? (Because as stated above, I fail to see how there is a “right” to marriage: it’s an institution regulated by the state. Therefore, I see this as a equal protection issue not a due process issue, which is how SCOTUS analyzed it in Loving.) So, let’s answer that question first. My view is that, historically, the state’s purpose for regulating marriage is to protect women and children. The state’s interest is not some amorphous formal recognition of a romantic attachment. That is how many people today view marriage, but the state could or should care less about that.

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