Somehow Everyone Missed It

Here is a very odd-looking book from Yale University Press: Polygamy: An Early American History, by historian Sarah Pearsall (Cambridge). Based on the blurb and the reviews, the book argues that polygamy was much closer to the center of early American culture than we understand today–a “shocking” discovery, in the words of one of the reviewers. I haven’t read the book, but I have to say I’m skeptical, both because I’m skeptical generally when historians claim to have discovered a salient feature of the long-ago past that no one has noticed, and also because the thesis fits so well with the current policy goals of so many academics. Wouldn’t it be great to learn that our ancestors approved of polygamy all along, and thought of it as one marital option among many?

To learn that polygamy historically existed in America would not be “shocking.” It exists today. But, as today, it seems to have been very much a fringe phenomenon. There’s a reason polygamous groups, like 19th Century Mormons, had to move repeatedly and finally settle in the frontier. Americans at the time precisely did not see polygamy as one option among many. Anyhow, readers can judge for themselves. Here’s the description of the book from the Yale website:

A groundbreaking examination of polygamy showing that monogamy was not the only form marriage took in early America.

Today we tend to think of polygamy as an unnatural marital arrangement characteristic of fringe sects or uncivilized peoples. Historian Sarah Pearsall shows us that polygamy’s surprising history encompasses numerous colonies, indigenous communities, and segments of the American nation. Polygamy—as well as the fight against it—illuminates many touchstones of American history: the Pueblo Revolt and other uprisings against the Spanish; Catholic missions in New France; New England settlements and King Philip’s War; the entrenchment of African slavery in the Chesapeake; the Atlantic Enlightenment; the American Revolution; missions and settlement in the West; and the rise of Mormonism.
 
Pearsall expertly opens up broader questions about monogamy’s emergence as the only marital option, tracing the impact of colonial events on property, theology, feminism, imperialism, and the regulation of sexuality. She shows that heterosexual monogamy was never the only model of marriage in North America.

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