Supreme Court Justice Alito is wrong about the history of so-called traditional marriage


During yesterday’s oral arguments concerning the federal Defense of Marriage Act,  Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, a staunch conservative, said this:

“Traditional marriage has been around for thousands of years. Same-sex marriage is very new.”

But Alito was wrong on both counts.  History shows that marriage is an ever-changing institution. Nor is same-sex marriage anything new.

Consider THIS:

Actually, the institution [of marriage] has been in a process of constant evolution. Pair-bonding began in the Stone Age as a way of organizing and controlling sexual conduct and providing a stable structure for child-rearing and the tasks of daily life. But that basic concept has taken many forms across different cultures and eras. “Whenever people talk about traditional marriage or traditional families, historians throw up their hands,” said Steven Mintz, a history professor at Columbia University. “We say, ‘When and where?'” The ancient Hebrews, for instance, engaged in polygamy — according to the Bible, King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines — and men have taken multiple wives in cultures throughout the world, including China, Africa, and among American Mormons in the 19th century. Polygamy is still common across much of the Muslim world. The idea of marriage as a sexually exclusive, romantic union between one man and one woman is a relatively recent development. Until two centuries ago, said Harvard historian Nancy Cott, “monogamous households were a tiny, tiny portion” of the world population, found in “just Western Europe and little settlements in North America.”


What role did love play?

For most of human history, almost none at all. Marriage was considered too serious a matter to be based on such a fragile emotion. “If love could grow out of it, that was wonderful,” said Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History. “But that was gravy.” In fact, love and marriage were once widely regarded as incompatible with one another. A Roman politician was expelled from the Senate in the 2nd century B.C. for kissing his wife in public — behavior the essayist Plutarch condemned as “disgraceful.” In the 12th and 13th centuries, the European aristocracy viewed extramarital affairs as the highest form of romance, untainted by the gritty realities of daily life. And as late as the 18th century, the French philosopher Montesquieu wrote that any man who was in love with his wife was probably too dull to be loved by another woman.


Did marriage change in the 20th century?

Dramatically. For thousands of years, law and custom enforced the subordination of wives to husbands. But as the women’s-rights movement gained strength in the late 19th and 20th centuries, wives slowly began to insist on being regarded as their husbands’ equals, rather than their property. “By 1970,” said Marilyn Yalom, author of A History of the Wife, “marriage law had become gender-neutral in Western democracy.” At the same time, the rise of effective contraception fundamentally transformed marriage: Couples could choose how many children to have, and even to have no children at all. If they were unhappy with each other, they could divorce — and nearly half of all couples did. Marriage had become primarily a personal contract between two equals seeking love, stability, and happiness.


Same-sex unions aren’t a recent invention. Until the 13th century, male-bonding ceremonies were common in churches across the Mediterranean. Apart from the couples’ gender, these events were almost indistinguishable from other marriages of the era. Twelfth-century liturgies for same-sex unions — also known as “spiritual brotherhoods” — included the recital of marriage prayers, the joining of hands at the altar, and a ceremonial kiss. Some historians believe these unions were merely a way to seal alliances and business deals. But Eric Berkowitz, author of Sex and Punishment, says it is “difficult to believe that these rituals did not contemplate erotic contact.



  1. As for traditional marriage, he is simply saying men and women have been marrying for thousands of years. Sure the roles of men and women, within the institution, have changed over the years. Some cultures allow polygamy. Public attitudes toward marriage and public displays of affection have changed. No one is disputing any of that. The fact Justice Alito was stating was that men and women have been getting married for thousands of years and same-sex couples have not. As for same-sex marriage, he’s talking about marriage- not same-sex unions, or other things that resemble it. Same-sex marriage was first legalized in 2001, in the Netherlands. It was first legalized in the United States (Massachusetts), in 2004. In that respect, same-sex marriage is a relatively new concept. I don’t think this really makes an argument for or against the legalization of same-sex marriage; it is a simple statement of fact.

  2. Craig Knauss

    The biggest selling point for “traditional marriage” is propagation of the human race. Well around here the human race seems to be propagating just fine with or without legal marriage. And the Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons didn’t seem to need legal marriage much either.

  3. Brian Opsahl

    I am a man who ….hates to admit it, but like the crowmagnum man …i have evolved on this issue. Here is why ….?
    Folks who have already spent most of there lives together cannot make end of life decisions or have any say in what that person wishes when ending life. It’s non of my dam business what goe’s on in somebody’s bedroom or who they chose for a partner. Non

  4. truth hurts


    I think there are two issues here that people want to mix to divert from the facts.

    While it is true such things as where the spouse comes from (other nationalities, cultures, even races), how marriage was recorded and regulated (church only, frontier, governmental licence, ect), the economic benifits (from wife getting nothing, surviorship, insurance, taxes, ect), roles within the marriage (ex who worked and who stayed home) , and even such things unusual things (child brides, cousins, dead relatives spouses, ect) have changed there is ONE THING that has not over the thousands of years till now.

    It is simply ONE MAN and ONE WOMAN.

    Except for plagiamy and concubines , this concept can be found for as long as written history has existed.

    The concept may have been thought of by people, but the history and society all over the world as a whole has accepted this universal definition.

    It has only been relatively recently that people wanting to change it for reasons of economics to (imo the real reason) attempting to change a social norm/definition.

    All the justice was pointing out was the definition that has existed for thousands of years , period.

    You can disagree, argue, stomp your feet, and hold your breath until you turn blue but the traditional definiton of marriage is between a man and woman.

    Sorry if facts don’t agree with your view.

  5. truth hurts

    Now I have a question for those who are supporting this “gay” marriage.
    What is your TRUE purpose for this?

    As I understand it the whole thing got started as wanting the same economic and legal benifits of those who are married.

    If so have you not achieved this with (as IL has done) by getting civil union legislation?

    Which in essence covers same and opposite sex?

    Which I might point out passed though IL with much less resistance and fuss than calling it marriage?

    Why not do this at a national level for the federal benifits?

    I guess the hard question then becomes one of what are your true intentions?

    Is it really for benifits or is it to change society to fit one groups political/moral viewpoint on the rest of us?

  6. Jennifer Clarke

    I agree that federal recognition of civil unions for all States along with the benefits that are currently given to married heterosexuals would be the first ,and hopefully a less threatening, step to give gays and lesbians civil liberties and equality under the law . This is the course that was taken by Denmark, the first country to recognise gay and lesbian civil unions in 1989. A gender neutral marriage which can also be a religious union has only been written into law in 2012. It took time to change opinion of mainly the church and the traditionally minded to achieve this though it is still controversial amongst conservative bishops and priests. This is why I agree that civil unions would be a prudent course of action here in the US. The tide of change is starting to happen here towards an acceptance of same sex partnerships. I think the more that gays and lesbians have come out and verbalised their situation under present laws people generally have come to realised the extent of discrimination that has been attached to the status of marriage. At the same time many of the younger generation don’t understand why gays and lesbians have received so much opposition to their relationships. The concepts of gender and gender roles has changed immensely in the last 100 years. This change has accelerated in the past forty years after women’s rights were fort for on the streets, in the homes and in the courts. Society has changed and will continue to change. Groups that are discriminated against will and should continue to fight for equality, so that there are no longer laws for one class of people and ones for another. As a lesbian I do not think a status termed as civil union with the inclusion of the 1138 federal benefits discriminatory. If people of religious faith and or conservative values want to keep the label marriage for heterosexual relationships I think that’s quite alright. Im a Danish citizen who has a US partner who lives in a State that doesn’t recognise lesbian relationships so I would greatly appreciate the repeal of DOMA and the recognition of same sex relationships. I would love to get my life in one place, here in the US. It would be so wonderful if my partner and I could stop having to fly the Atlantic twice a year, maintain two homes on two sides of the world, all in the effort of staying together as much as possible and in maintain our relationship.

  7. Craig Knauss

    “It is simply ONE MAN and ONE WOMAN.

    Except for plagiamy and concubines , this concept can be found for as long as written history has existed.”

    Polygamy and concubines ARE a big exception. But maybe you should look at some of the other cases that have existed as long as written history has existed. For example, the Egyptian pharaohs married their own sisters. But that’s OK since she wasn’t Pharaoh’s brother? And marrying first cousins is OK? And what about the other kinky crap, like a 50 y.o. man marrying an 18 y.o. (or younger) girl? How about a 70 y.o. woman marrying a 30 y.o. man? Since it’s a man and a woman, I guess that’s OK too, since “traditional” marriage has been protected.

    BTW, do you have any information on “marriage” BEFORE written history? How would you know what went on then? And FYI “written history” is only as complete and accurate as it is recorded. So, look and see how many females are named in Genesis. Based on what is written, Eve was the only female around until Cain skipped town and found a “wife” out in the bushes somewhere.

  8. truth hurts

    Jennifer THANK YOU

    Thank you for seeing “the forest for the tree’s” on this issue.

    You (and I hope the majority of the gay community) feel that it is about the benefits NOT the title.

    I find the term “civil unions” (making no distinction between same or opposite sex unions) seems to match what the homosexual community claims they want in total equality.

    I think the problem is your “spokespersons” are pushing using the term “marriage” above the benefits they claim is the issue.

    As I stated before (at least at the state level) when called civil unions opposition is light at best. When they demand marriage is when the problems erupt.

  9. truth hurts

    Craig as usual instead of presenting an adult counterpoint in the descussion you resort to a bunch of arguments that have little or no content that applies to the discussion.

    But for discussion sake lets look at what you have stated.

    One I stated in “written” history the definition of marriage has been between man and woman.

    Now if you want to be technically accurate before written record there is no facts stating wither marriage is defined as same or different sexes. So both could be accurate. But without facts mentioning it is silly and pointless.

    Two the book of genesis is in the bible. I stated (listen closely) written record of history. Where did I quote or imply the bible? You trying to use genesis as a historical record example just shows your despiration or ignorance.

    Two the example of marrying the pharohs sister is an example of exactly what? The depravity of royalty? Last I checked all though europe the ruling families were required to marry only royalty thus lots of inbreeding, incest, ect.

    Three first cousins.. You do know the famous and reviered FDR (democrat) was married to his first cousin right?

    Two and three only show what we not consider depravity and taboo. It does not nor has it been part of the definition of marriage. To be factual people allowed it or accepted it. Not the definition.

    Four the idea you presented of 50 year old man and 18 year old girl. Ok what are you saying. By the LAW if the younger one (be it male of female) is of legal age it is LEGAL.
    Creepy is your opinon and seems to be liked by the reality tv crowd.
    Now as long as both parties of are legal age they would tell you buzz off.

    Again the age is added (and no one has said it should not be) by the law as for consent but is again male and female.

    Thought your whole rant craig nothing has in any way changed the concept that the term “marriage” has been recognised though WRITTEN history as one man and one woman.

    All you showed is you want to throw everything against the wall and hope something sticks.

    Let me again state my view.

    As long as it is between two consenting legal age people it is not my business who one chooses to spend their life with.

    That being said it is clearly stated (wither one chooses to accept it or not) though written history that marriage is defined between a man and woman. This was also used as a reason for the laws against poligamy (which the gay supporters will not support).

    Even in the issues of race (which has also been used by the gay community) the winning argument and fact is when the anti-race laws were struck down it still was man and woman, definition unchanged in any way.

    The whole argument on same sex unions and the claimed reason was for BENEFITS as opposite sex couples have. In simple terms impartiality in who gets benefits as long as a committed couple.

    Now not only does civil union legislation grant benefits to same sex couples, but it also does not make any differences if the couple in question is same or opposite sex. Thus achieving the supposed stated goal of equality.

    So civil union laws grant equality of benefits, no distinction of who is a legally recognized couple (as long as legal age), and as shown at the state level little opposition to passage.

    You can call (under free speech and the law) your partner wife, husband, significant other, purple people eater, whatever makes you happy.

    It leaves unchanged the definition of marriage as well.

    Seems like a win-win for all.

    So I ask again is it about the rights or the personal desire/politcal agenda to make your union labeled marriage?

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