In the battle over same-sex marriage, opponents are strongly in favor of deferring to the wisdom of our ancestors. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence uses the prevailing formula when he says, "I support traditional marriage." The Christian Coalition of America urges its friends to "Say 'I Do' to Traditional Marriage."
They have friends on the Supreme Court. In arguments over a California ban on gay marriage, Justice Samuel Alito expressed reservations about abandoning time-honored arrangements. "Traditional marriage has been around for thousands of years," he said, while same-sex marriage is "newer than cell phones or the Internet."
Invoking age-old customs has not served to convince the American people, most of whom now favor letting gays wed. But then Americans have rarely rallied to the idea that we should do something just because that's what was done in the time of Henry VII or even George Washington.
Ronald Reagan was fond of quoting the 18th-century American pamphleteer Thomas Paine's ringing declaration, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again." Beginning the world over again does not imply a slavish attachment to olden days and olden ways.
America has always been trailblazer of the future, not custodian of the past. So opposing same-sex marriage on grounds of tradition is a chancy proposition.
But this approach has another major flaw: What conservatives regard as traditional marriage is not very traditional at all. It's radically different from what prevailed a century or two centuries ago. And if you want to talk about "thousands of years," you'll find that almost everything about marriage has changed.
The biblical King Solomon, after all, was a dedicated polygamist, with 700 wives. Monogamy has always been the norm in Christianity, but not as part of a marriage of equals.
The 18th-century English jurist William Blackstone explained, "By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law; that is, the very being or legal existence of a woman is suspended, or at least incorporated or consolidated into that of the husband, under whose wing, protection, or cover she performs everything."
Women generally couldn't enter into contracts without permission from their husbands. In legal status, they were a notch above sheep and goats. In America, it was not until well into the 19th century that states began to grant married women something resembling full property rights.