Monday, October 24, 2011
Marriage and Fidelity: Debunking the Mythological Past
The same guy I've been debating from the last two posts raised the following question in his current response to me:
"If people in the past never married for love but right now people are currently marrying for love, how would you explain the escalating divorce and infidelity rates?"
First off, I never said people "never married for love" in the past, but that's how this guy read me apparently. Moving on, let's consider the second half of the question a little more closely, because I do think a lot of people believe that there's much more cheating going on today than in the past. And there is no small amount of "alarm" about divorce rates.
Simply put: a lot of folks are pretty ignorant about history. Just look at the records of the more powerful from the past. In terms of the U.S, many of our early Presidents and/or Congressional leaders cheated on their wives, some multiple times. And infidelity amongst men was socially sanctioned and even encouraged in some circles. Furthermore, although it was potentially much more dangerous for women to cheat, some still did, even those in prominent places.
Here are some rather dramatic examples that resulted in major political scandals:
In 1796, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (the guy currently pictured on the $10 bill) had an affair with Maria Reynolds while both were married to other people.
There has been ongoing revelations about President Thomas Jefferson's parentage of multiple children with his slave Sally Hemmings.
In 1831, Robert Potter, a Congressman from North Carolina, resigned from Congress after castrating two men he believed were having an affair with his wife.
During the same year, the husband of Margaret "Peggy" O'Neale, later Margaret O'Neill Eaton, was alleged to have been driven to suicide because of her affair with Andrew Jackson's Secretary of War, John Henry Eaton.
In 1859, Daniel Sickles (D-NY) shot and killed the district attorney of the District of Columbia Philip Barton Key II, son of Francis Scott Key, whom Sickles had discovered was having an affair with Sickles's young wife, Teresa.
An additional note about this case was that Sickles was tried and acquitted in the first use of the temporary insanity plea.
Well known early 20th Century President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a long standing affair with his wife Eleanor's secretary Lucy Mercer, which led to Eleanor offering a divorce, and Lucy (a Catholic) declining to marry FDR.
Those are just a few of the more salacious examples from the record. There are plenty of "garden variety" affairs to be found as well, if people just stop and read their history a little closer.
None of this, of course, suggests that no one married for love, or stayed committed for a lifetime. Many couples did, but my point is that the levels of infidelity have not skyrocketed in the ways right wing social conservatives are fond of suggesting.
As for the rising divorce rates, again, consider the fact that less than two generations ago, women were rarely in a financial or even legal position to file for divorce. In fact, throughout the 19th century, if a woman wanted to file for divorce, she would loose both the custody of her children and rights to any property she had. Furthermore, depending on one’s religious affiliation, divorce was, regardless of gender, not really a possibility. Thus, many people stayed married out a sense of duty to their religious beliefs.
Although some of this information might puncture holes in a nostalgia for a "romance like those of the good ole days," I actually find it oddly comforting, because it shows that relationships have always had their complications. The problems of today might be different than those of yesterday, but I don't think we've gone on a terribly slide downward when it comes to love and commitment.
*Photo: FDR with girlfriend Lucy Mercer and cousin-wife Eleanor, in 1929. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library)