Earlier today I was asked about the definition of marriage, and not being someone who is or has ever been married, I wondered about what qualifications I possess that would make someone want to know my thoughts on its definition and why such thoughts would matter. Further questioning, though, indicated that the question was more why government gets involved in marriage and for what purposes. This can be a complicated question. The role of government in marriage has always been intense, and when we look at the role of government in marriage throughout history, there are a lot of contradictions and rapid changes of direction in government approaches towards marriage. At times, governments have cared very little about the relations between people, and at other times governments have cared a great deal about either encouraging certain unions or forbidding others, depending on their particular purposes. While such a subject, even constrained as it is, is still far beyond the scope of a single essay like this one, it is possible to get a sense of what a government is saying when it seeks to define what marriages it recognizes and which it does not.
For governments, accepting the relationships of people as marriages has always involved a conferring of legitimacy on such unions and on seeing such unions as representing some sort of praiseworthy behavior that was worthy of recognition and support. On the other hand, the refusal to recognize unions has always carried with it a lack of recognition of the validity or the worth of such unions. At times, governments have only been interested in the unions of some people, depending on citizenship or class status, while at other times, governments have been far more widespread in their interest in marriages, often conferring certain benefits to married couples that were denied to those in unapproved relationships or not in any relationship at all. At times, the chief interest in regulating marriage related to concerns about legitimate offspring that would perpetuate the ruling culture or class throughout the generations, while contemporary governments often wish to deliberately encourage sterility and a lack of natural population growth within society, even while encouraging various inferior substitutes to natural increase to deal with societal needs. In light of the contradictions with regards to government policies towards marriage that exist, it can be hard to know government’s interest in marriage overall, even if we can say what governments support in a given place and time based on law and policy.
There has often been a distinct difference in the attitude of governments towards the marriages of elites and that of other people within society. A large part of this relates to questions of property and its passing down through generations. Where marriages served as means of allying families together, preserving property within families (which often involved an acceptance of various forms of endogamy), or even geopolitical marriages for alliances (which involved deliberate attempts at exogamy, often, unless it also involved endogamous unions between different branches of the same family), marriages have often been highly regulated and have involved complex negotiations that involved contracts and serious consequences for breaches of union. On the other hand, where one has dealt with the unions of ordinary people with less property, marriages have often been associated with various taxes to take what little property commonfolk had or have involved a lax attitude towards the marriages of those whose unions had little importance in the social order. Unions like common-law marriage springing out of concubinage and cohabitation were frequently tolerated in artistic circles or peasant circles because such people held little social or economic or political importance within society, and so what they did was not sufficiently important to regulate to any significant degree.
It is important to understand that when governments have forbidden unions or the recognition of them, they have done so because of some sort of social policy that was being violated by these unions. Where governments desired to encourage the birth of new citizens and population maintenance or growth, unions which were contrary to such ends were justly stigmatized. Contemporary governments, especially in the West, appear to desire to shrink populations, and so unions which do not increase population are often celebrated. Frequently, both in the present day and throughout history, the definition of marriage and what sort of people were allowed to marry what sort of people has been a deeply political question that struck at the very core of the sort of people that governments wished to rule over and wished to encourage as part of a governing class. It can be hard to get at these purposes directly, but we can understand them indirectly by looking at the implications of what unions are recognized, which are encouraged, and which are forbidden or stigmatized, and draw appropriate conclusions from where boundaries exist and when and how they change.