What was the history of marriage in the United States

This is an image of a blank marriage certificate from the mid-19th century.

Love and marriage. Marriage is an institution that is pervasive throughout American life. It isn't just about love or procreation. It defines things like inheritance, rights, privileges, and immigration--just to name a few (see, for example, previous post on interracial marriage). Marriage directly impacts reproduction and the composition of its citizens. With citizenship being attached to birth here after the passage of the 14th Amendment, marriage policy essentially underscores national belonging[1]. Throughout history, the United States has idealized faithful, intraracial monogamy in the name of public interest and securing public order, and it formed the basis of defining appropriate sexual activity.[2]

In the present day, our idea of marriage is that it's a partnership between two individuals--hopefully for love and companionship. However, marriage also has religious undertones, and in some religions is an important event. Legally, marriage is also a contract. Since marriage functions as an entryway into so many of these things, it's significance has changed over time, and it has been subject to regulation. But how did marriage become an institution in the United States?

Colonial America

In the colonial period, marriage was understood more in a religious and practical sense. In Virginia, which had a landed gentry and a wealthy aristocracy, love was less important to marriage, since marriage brought together two families and their properties. For some families, sensible relationships were a way to uplift families, or to move up the social hierarchy. While love was not a requirement for marriage, it was assumed that love would follow since marriage brought together men, women, and families in a way that was natural, patriarchal, and hierarchical. Furthermore, since men outnumbered women in the Chesapeake, those men who were able to marry, usually were men of higher status who were more desirable marriage partners. Depending on the colony in question--some being more religious than others--the marriage was an unbreakable union.

Throughout much of Colonial America, marriage was a contract. In 1653, the Civil Marriage Act required that anyone who wanted to marry had to announce an intent to marry publicly. Since marriage was not something that the government actively kept track of, listing or posting of the banns became a way to formalize union as a civil ceremony. The assignment of the banns allowed the community to be able to bring forth any reasons why the couple shouldn't marry. For example, if someone knew one of the soon-to-be spouses was married in another town, or if someone knew they were too closely related. Once the banns had been posted for a certain amount of time, the couple could legally wed by a justice of the peace.

In Puritan society, young couples were expected to get parental permission before marrying and could sometimes be fined if they did not. Additionally, Puritan customs and practices like "bundling" and the "courting stick" were designed to give young couples privacy and a chance to get to know one another and ensure consent at marriage, while at the same time guaranteeing strict supervision by the parents or elders. Though marriage was necessary, and there were rules related to it, it was still a relatively informal practice until the late 19th and even early 20th century.


19th Century

Supporters of same-sex marriages cheer outside the Supreme Court on April 28, 2015, in Washington, D.C. by Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images.

The informality of marriage practices--and their variability from state to state--became more visible after the American Civil War. When the federal government recognized a need to provide pensions to widows of former soldiers in 1862, women throughout the country attempted to collect these pensions that they were due. Requiring a proof of marriage, though, meant some women had to be creative or resourceful. Few women had official documents from priests, judges, or other local officials.

More often than not, women submitted letters from friends or neighbors attesting to the fact that the couple was married, or artifacts like pieces of uniforms, or locks of hair. The preponderance of these artifacts in the National Archives Civil War Pension files suggests that legal marriage was not a standard practice. And increasingly, from the late 19th century through the 1920s, marriage became a formal process in local government.


In the 19th century, Webster's dictionary defined marriage as "the act of uniting man and woman, as husband and wife, for life." For most of American history, marriage was a practical household arrangement based on reciprocal obligations. It united men and women into a singular identity and transformed men into husbands and women into wives. In idealized marriage, men worked and used their wages to provide for their home and family in exchange for women's help and domestic service.[3]

Throughout most of American history, women's lives were defined by the English common law that was brought to the American colonies and then reshaped and defined over time. These rights and laws related to married women fell under the umbrella of "coverture." Coverture was a literal understanding of Webster's definition of marriage that effectively meant that women did not have a separate legal existence from their husbands. Under coverture, husband and wife were legally one person--the entirety of that person being the husband. Women's legal, civil, and property rights were suspended once married. Her own separate, legal existence merged into her husband's and she lost the capacity to contract for herself, sue for herself, or be sued herself, or own her own property or wages. In the eyes of the law, married women were treated in the same class as other household dependents--like children or slaves (pre-13th Amendment). Furthermore, marriage provided husbands with their own consortium of rights, including sexual intercourse (which is why marital rape, for example, has legally been treated and viewed differently from nonmarital rape for most of American history).

20th Century

In the 20th century, we began to see more challenges to the heterosexual, intraracial ideal of marriage. This post does not address interracial marriage and encourages the reader to see our other DailyHistory post on the subject. In the context of the decision in "Loving v. Virginia" (1967) and the Civil Rights Movements, same-sex couples began to push for the legal recognition of their relationships. However, this was met with pushback from Republican and Democratic factions. It was Democratic President William Clinton who passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996.

The Act itself is concise--comprising three sections in total--but it provided a stunning rebuke to same-sex couples. While the Act gave individual states the right to recognize same-sex marriage, it also gave the states right to deny recognition of same-sex marriages. Furthermore, it affirmed the federal government's stance that "marriage" only referred to the legal union of men and women. Therefore, the federal government would not recognize marriages between same-sex couples--even if they were legally married in their state. While some states used this as an opportunity to recognize same-sex partnerships, these couples lacked the basic protections of legal marriage. These legal differences and protections became visible in the case "United States v. Windsor" (2013).

Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer had been a couple for decades. When Canada legalized same-sex marriage, they married in Ontario in 2007. Eventually, their home state of New York recognized that marriage as legally valid. When Thea died, she left her entire estate to Edith; however, since the federal government didn't recognize their marriage under DOMA, the IRS charged Edith over $360,000 on the estate she inherited. If the federal government had legally recognized their marriage, she would not have been fined as the surviving spouse. Windsor and her attorneys argued that DOMA was unconstitutional, and the US Supreme Court agreed, striking DOMA down for violating the 14th Amendment.


It was not until 2015 that same-sex marriage was fully decided in "Obergefell v. Hodges". When this case was before the US Supreme Court, the primary issues at hand were discussing whether the 14th Amendment required a state to license marriages of same-sex couples and whether a state had to recognize the legal marriage of a same-sex couple that had been licensed and performed in another state. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled yes and yes. In his closing remarks, Justice Kennedy wrote:

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. Informing a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."

While opposition remains, it was with this case the fundamental right to marry was guaranteed to same-sex couples in the United States.


  1. Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America, 2011.
  2. Julian B. Carter, The Heart of Whiteness: Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880-1940, 2007.
  3. Carole Shammas, A History of Household Government in America, 2002.