Cott's overall point is that while marriage in the United States has been considered a private zone -- affectually and contractually -- it is also constrained by public custom and legal regulation. As she writes in the introduction:
In the marriage ceremony the public recognizes and supports the couple's reciprocal bond, and guarantees that this commitment (made in accord with the public's requirements) will be honored as something valuable not only to the pair but to the community at large. Their bond will be honored even by public force ... the public sets the terms of marriage (2).Those terms have been paradoxically remarkably tenacious and constantly in flux. As Cott demonstrates, Americans have generally privileged the monogamous Christian marriage as the "common sense" of marriage relationships, despite the fact that at the time of the United States' founding "the predominance of monogamy was by no means a foregone conclusion" (9).
In the years of the Early Republic, this relationship was one of coverture, in which the wife's political identity was subsumed by that of her husband upon marriage; the husband was charged with representing his wife in the public realm much as a member of Congress (the founding generation of American political theorists drew this analogy) represented his constituents. As women and free blacks struggled for citizenship status throughout the 19th century, the terms of marriage (who could marry and the rights and duties marriage entailed) shifted to meet -- or at times to combat -- these new demands. Waves of immigration and anti-immigrant sentiment shaped laws around marriage as politicians determined what foreign marriage practices would be recognized as valid, and the changing economic landscape shaped and re-shaped understandings of how work and marriage inter-related.
Much of what Cott has to say will come as no surprise to historians of women's and gender history, or even social and labor history: notions of citizenship and personhood are uniquely tied up, in United States law and social custom, with one's status not only as an individual but also as the member of an acceptable family unit. Conformity to marriage norms can have real impact on one's status as a citizen (as any first-generation immigrant can tell you), and while women's political lives are no longer subsumed under their husband's at the altar, the assumption that women will be (hetero)wives continues to endure in tax codes and other legacies of coverture in the legal-political realm.
Cott touches only lightly on same-sex marriage in the final chapter of Public Vows, underscoring how little "gay marriage" actually has to do with the revolution(s) in modern family organization that the last two centuries of American history have seen. Feminist agitation has, indeed, played a much bigger role in shifting marriage onto new ground. As Cott observes, "So far as it is a public institution, [marriage] is a vehicle through which the apparatus of the state can shape the gender order.... Turning men and women into husbands and wives, marriage has designated the ways both sexes act in the world and the reciprocal relationship between them" (3). These designations often reach beyond the actually married, constraining the lives of the non-married as well. As women gained more equal footing as citizens, the shape of marriage as an economic, political, and personal relationship was fundamentally changed. In the context of this long sweep of change, the extension of civil marriage rights to same-sex couples is but a small step in the direction of equal citizenship status for all, regardless of gender or affectional ties.
Conversely, the fact that same-sex marriage evokes such strong reactionary feelings points toward the centrality of the Christian monogamous marriage plot to the organization of American civic life: as a key aspect of our project to differentiate ourselves from European and other world governments. By governing who is let in (and who kept out) of marriage we -- as a nation-state -- are often simultaneously identifying who -- both symbolically and literally -- is allowed to be a citizen.
I'm following my reading of Public Vows with E.J. Graff's contemporaneous What Is Marriage For? (Beacon Press, 1999). Like Cott, Graff explores the historical shape of marriage and discovers heterogeneity rather than some ur- form of "traditional" marriage ... I'm looking forward to limning the similarities and differences between their arguments, so look for a review here soon!