Marital Signs of a Progressive Society: The Cousin Marriage Debate in Nineteenth-Century America

Susan McKinnon, Professor and Chair, Dept. of Anthropology, University of Virginia, and Weatherhead Resident Scholar, SAR

Colloquium, SAR Boardroom

Wednesday, September 23, 2015, 12:00–1:00 pm, Free

Susan McKinnon, 2015-2016 Resident ScholarSusan McKinnon, 2015-2016 Resident ScholarPhotograph by Tom Cogill. Courtesy of Susan McKinnon.

Well into the nineteenth century, cousin marriage was an emotionally resonant and culturally validated feature of the American social landscape ‐ a means of consolidating family ties, political alliances, and economic relations of labor, landed wealth, and investment capital. So it is a puzzle as to why, beginning in the 1850s — and in the absence of genetics and germ theory of disease — cousin marriage came to be highly stigmatized and was ultimately prohibited in 31 states. McKinnon situates this dramatic shift within the context of nineteenth-century medical debates concerning theories of disease and heredity (conceptualized in terms of temperaments and humors) and changing criteria of scientific evidence. And she shows how cousin marriage and its prohibition became signifiers in narratives of social evolution and articulated contested ideals about the kinds of social relations — hierarchical or egalitarian, familial or individual, democratic or aristocratic — that should organize domestic as well as national governance in the United States.

Follow us: