5 MAY 1866, Page 7


-NATE are an odd people. Nothing has happened since 1859

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make it more immoral to marry a deceased wife s sister, or more offensive to public sentiment, or more need- less to allow of the practice. The Liberal majority in Parlia- ment has very greatly increased, and a Bishop petitions for the change, and yet the measure which in that year was accepted by a majority of 58 on the second and 48 on the third reading, was on Wednesday rejected by 174 to 155. Nobody is dead who was accustomed to fight for the Bill, and the mover did not make a much worse speech than has always been made, and always upon such subjects must be made, in the House of Commons, where the theology of deli- cate questions, can seldom be frankly discussed. The only reason for such a change perceptible to the public is the change of leader. Lord Palmerston disapproved the restric- tion, but Mr. Gladstone approves it, and hence the falling off in the Liberalizing votes. Certainly the change is not due to the force of any new arguments employed. Mr. Coleridge's epee& is said to he very able, but he used that everlasting argiiresit from Leviticus, which, if it has any force at all, w°414, as.: Six' Boundell Palmer pointed out while resisting the make it wrong to prohibit bigamy. If the Levitical social, law is also a moral law, binding upon Christians, what an injustice to inflict seven years' penal servitude for an act explicitly ordered in one place, sanctioned in another, and tolerated all through. Jews accept Leviticus still as a living code, yet if a Jew "takes his handmaid" we sustain the wife's petition for a divorce. But, says Sir Bounden Palmer, the majority of Englishwomen are opposed to the Bill. We doubt that very much, outside the circles where female opinion means clerical opinion just a little watered, but sup- posing the proposition conceded, what then ? A sentiment absolutely universal among women condemns the preferen- tial right conferred by the law upon the father to the custody of his child. Yet that law is not repealed, and will not be, though the sentiment of maternal love is at least as sacred as that of sisterly confidence. But, says Mr. Coleridge, the high moral standard of marriage prevailing in this country would be lowered, the relations of the wife ceasing to be the relations of the husband, and every wife's sister being accused of wanting to succeed the wife. The way in which he put this was curiously strong. He was of opinion that if the law were permitted to pass it would be impossible for any modest mar- riageable woman, to treat her brother-in-law as her brother. It was obvious that any sister-in-law putting herself in the way of succession to the place of her sister, would be properly told by almost every person who went near her that she was manifestly seeking it." Every sister, that is, would be accused of wishing her sister's death in order that she might usurp her place. Mr. Coleridge must have thought he was talking to a jury. As a matter of fact cousins are often as close relatives in all respects of confidential intercourse as sisters, yet nobody ever accuses them when they stay in the house, or call the husband by his Christian name, of wanting either to supplant or succeed the wife.

But, says everybody, with an accent of horror which is to us, we confess, absolutely unintelligible, if a man may marry his wife's sister, so also he may marry his wife's niece. Well, why not ? She is no more akin to him than any other of the human family, no more kin, calculate it how you will, than the wife's cousin. She does not spring from a common ancestor, the basis of the Catholic and physiologi- cal rule of prohibition. The truth is that the law which makes affinity and consanguinity equally prohibitory of mar- riage is an artificial one, having no root whatever either in Christ's teaching or the horror naturalis, except so far as the second may prohibit marriage among affines of the ascending and descending degrees. So far from wanting to relax the stringency of any law based on either of those two foundations, we have repeatedly upheld the Continental system, which prohibits the marriage of an adopting father with an adopted child, though there is no relationship at all. The-sentiment of that relation makes marriage simply disgust- ing. But the principle of human life is liberty, and unless Mr. Coleridge can show either that liberty ought in this matter to be restrioted because of a command of Christ, or of an universal consensus indicating a divine instinct, or of ex- treme general convenience, the prohibition, even if operative only among one-millionth of the population, is unjust. Christ's command is not pleaded, and does not exist. The consensus is pleaded, but is not true, the Catholic Church, which never claims power to disturb either a divine or a natural law, granting dispensations for this marriage readily, the Protestants of Denmark and most American States allow- ing it, and the Hindoos, who place all members of the same family within eight descents from the common ancestor under an absolute prohibition, allowing marriage with the wife's kin, nay, even extolling it, because, as the teachers of that cult say sardonically, " He who marries two sisters has only one mother-in-law." There remains only the argument of con- venience, and upon this but two arguments of any weight have ever been produced, one of them not in this debate.

It is said sometimes to be injurious to society to legalize any practice morally offensive to a great number of its mem- bers, and there is no doubt a force of a kind in the objection. But then the offence must be very nearly universal, and must be based upon clear evidence that the practice is in se demoralizing to those who are offended. It is clear, for example, that among a community the infinite majority of which regarded such marriages as these as incestuous their permission might, for reasons it is inconvenient to state here, by possibility be demoralizing, and in that case the prohibition might justifiably be maintained. But Scotch Sabbataiianism is no reason for closing Scotch public gardens on Sunday, for a walk cannot, in the judgment of those who legislate, be demoral- izing to those who do not walk, and not being so, the individual retains his right to liberty. So with the consumption of alcohol. If the entire population of Great Britain except one man thought drinking a glass of beer a sin, they would have no right to prohibit that one man from drinking, unless they held that the mere absence of restriction on him directly demoralized themselves. One would think, to read some of Wednesday's speeches, that Mr. Chambers had proposed to compel widowers to marry their wives' sisters instead of merely permitting them. The second objection is that when the prohibition is gone a man's wife's sister could not very well keep house for him. That objection is to a certain extent valid. The cynical theory that no woman can modestly keep a man's house unless she is within the prohibited degrees, or very much his senior, is not uni- versal in England ; and we question whether, laws notwithstanding, society would not continue to endorse the practice. Scotch society certainly would, if the law were abolished to-morrow, and so, we imagine, would Irish, the sentiment of the country being an infinitely stronger bond than law. But granting the fact, is the convenience of a few middle- class persons a reason for denying the rightful liberty of mil- lions ? Or is it to be weighed against a much more numerous series of inconveniences? It is among the poor that the in- justice is chiefly felt. The wife's sister among them is often the only person to whom the widower can entrust his children, and as he cannot support her and a new wife too, he marries her, legally if he can, illegally if he must, the law, like all such laws when unsanctioned by opinion, simply producing needless and unjust demoralization. Except in these cases, the whole matter in itself is not perhaps of the importance with which it has been often invested, but the defeat of the Bill is one more proof how much we have yet to learn before we appreciate either what Christ meant by "Christian liberty," or what politicians understand by the rights of minorities.