Marriage: A “Liberal” Idea?

Marriage: A “Liberal” Idea?

by Mary Walker

I’m sure everyone remembers learning about John Locke in high school or college Western Civ classes. Indisputably, he was a huge intellectual force during the American Revolution and we owe much of our esteemed system of government to this brilliant man. But did you ever read the sections of the First or Second Treatise that talk about marriage? Locke is frequently characterized as the inventor of the nuclear family! That’s right! This same man of liberal political ideals also saw marriage as vital to the survival of our western culture!

Locke’s understanding of the family is best understood using the phrase “conjugal society”. This society is formed in the interest and well being of all members and the society at large. Locke describes this society, “Conjugal society is made by a voluntary compact between man and woman: and though it consists chiefly in such a communion and right in one another’s bodies, as is necessary to its chief end, procreation” (Locke 319). He understood this conjugal society to be a little political society, a framework designed to best control human appetites while directing desires in a healthy and productive way.

In Locke’s view, a person’s greatest downfall is his tendency to give in to license as opposed to freedom. This seems like a completely fair charge, especially given the box of Girl Scout cookies I just finished off. The conjugal society, then, is intended to guide that license into freedom by harnessing the seemingly (in Locke’s view) rampant desires of men into a relationship that is both beneficial and disciplining.  In this initial phase of the conjugal society, man’s natural inclinations are directed in a productive way that benefits the greater society through marriage.

Husbands and wives, therefore, are a scaled down model of political power: a mutually respectful and deliberate consensus with a division and separation of power. The sexes each have their strengths and weaknesses, so an essential part of this society is the balancing of those strengths and weaknesses to make an overall stronger unit.  It is this idea that is novel about Locke. Previous societies had thought that greater involvement of the state was the answer to developing a successful next generation of citizens, but Locke takes that political power of the state and transfers it to individual members of the society to create mini republics. This “out sourcing” of political power creates a sense of responsibility for the families which is challenging and rewarding. It also creates a sense of pride in the family that will, in turn, create the societal incentive or even pressure to create these conjugal societies in future generations.

As a unit, the conjugal society is highly productive and stable. Without marriage, men, whom Locke portrays as beasts, run wild with their desires, raping and pillaging whatever they encounter. This an economic problem, as well. A female head of household is a strong indicator of poverty and Locke points out that with men as providers, poverty could be almost eliminated, making the economic incentive a moral one as well (to take care of his family).

Locke’s understanding of marriage was carried over into early America resulting in what’s called “The Republican Family”. This, in my mind, evokes the image of Abigail Adams famously reminding her husband to “Remember the ladies…do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could” (McCullough 104). Tocqueville even wrote of this phenomenon of “the mini republic of marriage” in his masterpiece, Democracy in America:

They have thought that every association, to be efficacious, must have a head, and that the natural head of the conjugal association is the man. They therefore do not deny him the right to direct his mate, and they believe that in the little society of husband and wife, as well as in the great political society, the object of democracy is to regulate and legitimate necessary powers, not to destroy all power. (Tocqueville 706)

This association, in order to be efficacious, also required that a woman understood the virtue to which she was committing herself. Tocqueville wrote that, “American women did not, in my view, appear to regard conjugal authority as a felicitous usurpation of their rights, nor did they believe that it was degrading to submit to it” (Tocqueville 706)

Just as virtue is a natural way to happiness (not easy, but necessary for the goal), for Locke, marriage and the nuclear family are natural ways of channeling license into freedom. I took a class in grad school called Political Philosophy and the Family and we studied failed regimes that sought to control reproduction and water down ties between men and women (think Lycurgus, Plato and Betty Friedan). Let’s return to the Republican model where we can challenge and encourage our spouses. After all, my husband John loves me enough to hand me a carrot and remind me that cookies are bad for me. I think our government would just tell me to keep eating.


  1. There are several questions that this article raises. Firstly, is there any proof of the assertion that female headship leads to poverty? Secondly, is there any relationship between your husband’s giving you a carrot and the economic state of society?

    Thirdly, assuming that the author is arguing from a Catholic viewpoint, where are the references to the Bible, and church tradition, from which the author’s convictions actually stem? John Locke advocated for religious diversity on the grounds that it would help maintain social order (McGrath 214-5). Further, Locke began as a Calvinist, drifted through Socinianism, and ended his life somewhere near Arius. To quote Locke on a Catholic blog, disregarding his various religious positions, amounts to a weak argument, an attempt to veil the Truths of scripture and the Church in classical liberalism.

    • In all fairness, I (the editor…) accidentally posted this draft for the author rather than the final version so her thoughts might not have been expressed as she fully desired.

      But as to your final point, an article about the biblical support of marriage would be preaching to the choir on a Catholic blog (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). The author was attempting to show support for marriage as something occurring from a sociological standpoint – outside of the traditional Church teaching.

  2. Mr. Walter, thanks so much for your thoughtful response. The assertion of female headship leading to poverty was based on Locke’s hypothesis that single mothers raising a child by themselves was the strongest indicator of poverty. This would seem to be a fairly logical point in my view:

  3. Ms. Walker,

    Thank you for your response to my comment.

    In my reading of Locke, I do not find that he deals with the fulness of the concept of female headship. In his Proposed Poor Law Reform, from 1697, Locke does not mention a household structure in which women are the head. Instead, his focus is on unmarried women, who are, in his view, headless economic units. Even so, Locke encourages these women, and married women, to work, unless they have children under the age of three.

    With that in mind, I will turn for a moment to Ephesians 5:22-24. “Wives, [submit] to your husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the Church, His body, of which He is the Savior. But just as the church submits to Christ, so also ought wives submit to their husbands in all things.”

    It appears that for Saint Paul, economics is not the indicator of headship in a relationship; rather, the issue at hand is authority. Locke, however, is speaking in solely economic terms, and is only addressing single mothers, as does the article you linked to in your previous response. St. Paul is dealing with marriage, and the dynamics within marriage. To assert that Locke’s observations cover the same sweeping ground as St. Paul’s by making a generalization about a “female head of household” is to equate apples and oranges.

    I am not asking for an article on the biblical basis for marriage. As St. Paul makes it clear in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: marriage is indeed a vehicle that transforms license into freedom, as Locke also asserts. What I am asking for is better support for the economic claims made in the article.

    I look forward to further dialogue on the subject.