Long before the Supreme Court’s seminal parenting cases took a due process Lochnerian turn, American courts had been working to fashion family law doctrine on the premise that parents are only entrusted with custody of the child, and then only as long as they meet their fiduciary duty to take proper care of the child. With its progressive, anti-patriarchal orientation, this jurisprudence was in part a creature of its time, reflecting the evolutionary biases of the emerging fields of sociology, anthropology, and legal ethnohistory. In short, the courts embraced the new, “scientific” view that social “progress” entails the decline and, by some accounts, the demise of parental authority.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed the emergence of social science disciplines built on a materialistic theory of cultural progress and an evolutionary view of law. One result of these early enthographic efforts was the enormously influential stage-theory of societal development. Simply enough, stage-theory describes how a society moves from a primitive to a civilized state of development, and how it might fail to do so. The theory was congenial to the moral philosophers and social theorists of the Scottish Enlightenment; to libertarian-minded contractualists of late-nineteenth-century America; and to the founding fathers of revolutionary socialism. It was a part of the nineteenth century’s great idiom of secular progress and social engineering, part of a story of worldly advancement and human achievement in which the courts had their own role to play.
Part I of this article looks at what might be the most formative application of stage-theory to family relations, John Millar’s The Origins of the Distinctions of Ranks (1771). Drawing on the sociohistorical work of David Hume and Adam Smith, Millar provides an empirical account of how rights of personal authority (the right of husband over wife, father over children, and master over servant) arise out of and evolve in response to changing socioeconomic conditions. For Millar, there is little doubt that parental authority “has been reduced within narrower bounds, in proportion to the ordinary improvements of society.”
A product of the Scottish Enlightenment’s focus on sociability, Millar’s historical critique of paternal authority translated comfortably to the individualistic currents of the nineteenth century. Part II of this article looks at the work of two prominent libertarian legal theorists: the British comparative cultural and legal historian Henry Maine and the British moral philosopher Herbert Spencer. Though these writers took different routes through the emerging sociological territory of the nineteenth century, they all agreed that the historical record dictated the conclusion that there is no social progress without the repudiation of patriarchalism.
With its focus on economic conditions and its pragmatic approach to rights, stage-theory could be put to far more radical uses. In the socialist utopia imagined by Marx and Engels, the private family would vanish along with private property and profit. Part III of this article has two goals: to remind readers that 1) socialist historymaking considered the dissolution of the bourgeois family as a key step toward a stateless state, and 2) this repudiation of the family was no mere doctrinal abstraction for American legal professionals. As the Supreme Court weighed the competing claims of parent and state, the threat of a socialist takeover of the family—“the principle of the soviet”— was always close at hand.
In response to this unhappy prospect, the Court drew from the murky, mysterious well of state-constraining liberties we refer to as substantive due process. Repudiating the communistic models of ancient states—Sparta being the poster-child of historical statism—the Court began to write it own story of social progress. Social primitivism lay not in the patriarchal family but in the paternalistic state, and progress did not lie in a movement from personal rights to public responsibilities, but just the reverse. With regard to domestic life, this narrative of progress was one of struggle: a struggle of parental rights against the ever encroaching state. For the modern Court, regulation of the family would no longer be one of the proper functions of government. If history has an ash heap, and if the Court had its way, Sparta would once and for all be relegated to it.
43 Hastings Const. L.Q. 337
Scholarly Commons Citation
Shulman, Jeffrey, "Meyer, Pierce, and the History of the Entire Human Race: Barbarism, Social Progress, and (the Fall and Rise of) Parental Rights" (2016). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 1407.