The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Marriage, Statistics, and the State: Lunch Talk Recap

On Monday, 26 September, Bostonian Society/New England Women's Club Fellow Sarah Kirshen, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, gave a presentation on her dissertation research, “The Family's Values: Marriage, Statistics, and the State, 1800-1909.”  With a background in Public Health, Kirshen has undertaken to write a history of marriage statistics-gathering by state and federal governments, beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s call in 1800 for such information to be collected (a proposal that went nowhere) and ending with the publication of the second national study of marriage in the United States in 1909. Specifically, Kirshen focuses on two waves of activism in support of keeping marriage statistics.

First, during the 1830s and 1840s, there was a push for keeping vital statistics (birth, marriage, and death records) as a function of developing national identity. The advocates of vital statistics saw the keeping of such records as documentation that would provide a means to track individuals family histories as both a public health measure and as a means of developing a national lineage. In 1842, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to pass a vital statistics act, followed by other New England states. For the first time in 1850 the federal census asked about marital status. Kirshen looks at how the implementation of these laws led to the creation of “labor systems” by which the data could be collected and tracked. She also examines how the bureaucratization of marriage changed the meaning of marriage by making state solemnization central to the meaning of marriage in the United States.

The second wave of nineteenth-century activism around marriage appears in the Reconstruction era, when there was widespread national anxiety about changing household forms, particularly because of the new visibility of free black families and the debate over women’s property rights in marriage. Some reformers, specifically, drew upon marriage statistics as an authoritative source by which to argue that the American family was in crisis. They were particularly concerned about the prevalence of divorce, which they attributed to a lack of uniformity in marriage and divorce law nationwide. Thus, both the evidence of the problem (a supposedly newly-high rate in the breakdown of marriage relationships) and its cure (uniformity of marriage record-keeping) were tied up in the collection and analysis of statistics.

During the question and answer period, audience members asked about the influence of anti-Mormonism in the late-nineteenth-century push for marriage registration and the uniformity of state-sanctioned marriage. Kirshen has, as yet, uncovered little direct reference to Mormon polygamy in her research, but acknowledged the possible connection. In response to a question about opposition to vital-statistics gathering, Kirshen described the vocal dissent of Archbishop John Hughes of New York, also a critic of mandatory public schooling. Hughes argued that marriage was a sacred rite, not a state contract, and should not be subject to state oversight.

We wish Kirshen the best of luck with her research moving forward, and anticipate the completion of her dissertation with interest.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 28 September, 2011, 12:00 AM


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