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Federal Regulation Of Marriage Dates Back To Emancipation Of Slaves

A sunny depiction of emancipation, featuring Lincoln's head and a family of former slaves gathered around a hearth
Library of Congress / Thomas Nast

Before emancipation, slaves couldn’t legally marry other slaves. Of course, that didn’t stop them from getting married in their own way. But those informal marriages were seldom recognized by slave holders, who broke up families regularly as they bought and sold individuals. After being dislocated, many slaves settled down with new families, often getting married several times.

After the civil war, blacks gained the right to legally marry. But the patchwork of local and state laws regulating marriage made it nearly impossible to sort out the undocumented and often conflicting claims about which former slaves were married to whom. So on behalf of ex-slaves, the federal government stepped in, setting up bureaus to help sort out the mess.

After reconstruction, federal authorities handed control of marriage back to the states. But this episode from history helps frame the current debate on same-sex marriage. History’s lesson: Usually, the federal government will leave things to the states. But if the federal government decides things have become too messy or inequitable, it may step in.

Hear this story today, on KUOW Presents around 2:30, or at your leisure, online.

Other stories on KUOW Presents, Wednesday, March 27: