Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England are a seminal work that continues to influence legal thought and practice. Blackstone's views on marriage, as outlined in the provided text, offer a comprehensive look at how marriage was conceptualized in English common law. This blog post unpacks Blackstone's analysis of marriage as a civil contract, considering the implications of such a view and how it shaped societal norms.
📌 Marriage as a Civil Contract: A Legal Perspective
Blackstone posits that marriage, within English law, is strictly a civil contract, not inherently different from any other agreement between parties. The "holiness of the rite" is acknowledged but relegated to the ecclesiastical realm, with civil courts treating the legality of marriage apart from its religious or moral dimensions. This separation of church and state in marital affairs underscores an early understanding of secular governance in personal matters.
📌 Consent over Coitus: A Foundational Principle
At the heart of Blackstone's view is the principle "Consensus, non concubitus, facit nuptias" - it is consent, not sexual relations, that constitutes a marriage. This notion lifted the idea of marriage above physical acts to a meeting of minds and wills. It enshrined mutual agreement as the bedrock of matrimonial unity, which had both legal and social ramifications.
📌 Disabilities and Impediments to Marriage
Blackstone distinguishes between canonical and civil impediments to marriage. Canonical disabilities, such as pre-contractual engagements or close blood relationships, rendered a marriage voidable, not automatically null. Civil disabilities, however, could make a marriage void ab initio, meaning it was never valid from the outset. These included:
1️⃣ Prior Marriage: Bigamy or polygamy was strictly prohibited, reflecting both religious edicts and state policy aimed at maintaining social order.
2️⃣ Non-age: Blackstone notes a nuanced approach to age-related marriage impediments, balancing the strictness of the law with biological maturity.
3️⃣ Lack of Parental Consent: While the age of consent was crucial, parental input was also valued, particularly for those under twenty-one.
4️⃣ Want of Reason: No marriage could be valid if either party lacked the capacity to reason, with certain exceptions and conditions applied to lunatics or those with mental disabilities.
📌 The Importance of Form
Blackstone emphasizes that a marriage contract is not just about intent but also about proper form. For a marriage to be recognized, it had to be performed under the auspices of the church or by special dispensation, preceded by banns or a license. This requirement for formalities underscores the importance of public acknowledgment of private unions.
📌 The Role of Secular Authority in Marriage
By treating marriage as a civil contract, Blackstone's analysis gives significant power to the state to regulate and enforce the conditions of marriage. It positions the state, not the church, as the ultimate authority in matrimonial matters, with the power to deem what is a valid or invalid union.
📌 Implications for Society
Blackstone's treatise reflects and reinforces a shift towards more secular and contractual views of marriage. It suggests a move away from traditional ecclesiastical control toward a societal structure where individual rights and state laws take precedence. However, it also imposes rigid controls over individual choice, particularly regarding age and consent, reflecting societal values of the time.
📌 Concluding Thoughts
Sir William Blackstone's analysis of marriage as a civil contract presents a dual vision of marriage: deeply personal yet strictly regulated. While it upholds individual consent as paramount, it also places marriage firmly within the social and legal framework of the state. Blackstone's views have undeniably shaped modern marriage laws, which continue to balance the sanctity of personal choice with the need for legal order and societal norms.