And marriage, as I have argued, has not been one unchanging institution over time. Features of marriage that once seemed essential and indispensable proved otherwise. The ending of coverture, the elimination of racial barriers to choice of partner, the expansion of grounds for divorce—though fiercely resisted by many when first introduced—have strengthened marriage rather than undermining it. The adaptability of marriage has preserved it. Marriage persists as simultaneously a public institution closely tied to the public good and a private relationship that serves and protects the two people who enter into it. That it remains a vital and relevant institution testifies to the law’s ability to recognize the need for change, rather than adhere rigidly to values or practices of earlier times. Enabling couples of the same sex to gain equal marriage rights would be consistent with the historical trend toward broadening access. It would make clearer that the right to marry represents a profound exercise of the individual liberty central to the American polity.
more from Nancy F. Cott at Boston Review here.