Chapter 1b of Part 1 Section 2


by Adam Smith Icon

In many countries, men took as many wives as they could maintain.

Voluntary divorce has inconveniences. Yet it is still within justice that a man should divorce his wife and take another for less reasons than adultery, because they make them quite unhappy together though either of them might live well elsewhere.

The same is the case with polygamy. If a woman consents to be one of five or more wives and the law allows it, then there is no injury done to her.

The ancient Jewish and oriental laws tolerated polygamy, but though it and voluntary divorce be not altogether contrary to justice, it must always be a very bad policy where they are established or allowed.

Polygamy excites the most violent jealousy which destroys domestic peace. The wives are all rivals and enemies. The children are ill taken care of. The father’s attention is divided among 40 or 50 children. But his wife’s is divided only among four or five. Thus, the wife complains that her children are not used as they should.

Polygamy leads to a jealousy of love and a jealousy of interest, and consequently a lack of tranquillity.

The seraglios of the Eastern monarchs had the greatest peace, but this is due to the most imperious discipline – when rebels are subdued their humility is remarkable.

In Africa, we find the most horrid disorders, their discipline not being severe enough. The women are entirely locked up and only have the company of the eunuchs which they detest.

The man too who has the seraglio is by no means happy, though apparently so.

He too must be jealous, and on account of the inequality betwixt him and them he can have no entertainment at his own house, no opportunity of social improvements.

you must never mention his wife to a Turk, she can never be seen by men, not even by her physician, as Tournefort tells us. This gravity and reserve of the husband must have a bad effect upon the manners of the country.

As the men have no trust nor dependence upon each other, they cannot form into parties, and therefore the government must always be arbitrary, of which they have a model in their own houses, where there is little parental and less conjugal affection.

Besides all this it tends to depopulate the species, the greater part of men can get no wives, and many of them are castrated to take care of the seraglio.

It is indeed alleged that there are more women born than men.

Montesquieu says that at Bantam in the East Indies, there are 10 women born for 1 man. Dutch authors say that on the coast of Guinea there are 50 to 1. Japan has 11 women to 9 men. These make polygamy necessary.

By strict examination we find that in Europe there is little difference. The general computation is that there are 13 men to 12 women, or 17 to 16, which, as men are more exposed to dangers than women, makes the number about equal.

If there is no difference in Europe, then other places also have no differences. The laws of nature are the same everywhere, the laws of gravity and attraction the same, and why not the laws of generation?

In some of the fore-mentioned places there may indeed be more women than men.

In places where the seat of religion is, and where the court sits, and consequently the opulent live, there must be more women, because the rich only have seraglios, and they purchase the women from other places, so that there is a constant import of women from those countries in which polygamy does not take place.

Polygamy takes place under despotic governments.

When a country is conquered by savages, they indulge in brutality. Polygamy is a kind of brutality, as there is no established law. It never took place in ancient Carthage or Rome, though it takes place in Turkey.

In every country, freedom removes polygamy. There is nothing that free men will less submit to than a monopoly of this kind, but despotism is always favourable to polygamy. Montesquieu is in favour of polygamy because in some countries women are marriageable at 8 or 9 years old, and are old and withered at 20.

When they have their beauty they cannot have much understanding. When their understanding increases, their beauty is gone Consequently, they cannot long be agreeable companions. So a husband needs more than one wife. It might be their custom to deflower infants.

But this fact is not well attested.

Cleopatra was 36 years old when taken by Augustus, yet she was with child.

Constantia bore a child at 54 years old.

If these were true, polygamy is still unreasonable. Only voluntary divorce is reasonable.

If women were only useful for 10-12 years, it might be reasonable to take another, but not many at the same time.

Wherever polygamy takes place there can be no hereditary nobility.

It is difficult to make the right of primogeniture take place where there are so many wives, several of whom bring forth nearly at the same time.

Where there are so many children, they cannot all have the affection of the parent, and it is only by this means that any of them can establish themselves.

Where the children are numerous affection diminishes. I regard 4-5 children who are connected with my friend, but if there are 100 in the same relation they are little regarded.

Now hereditary nobility is the great security of the people’s liberty. Being in every corner of the country, whenever the subjects are oppressed they fly to him as their head. In Eastern countries there is no such thing.

Every man is almost an upstart, and the royal family alone is regarded. The families of the Bashaws after their death mix with the vulgar.

Wherever there is a hereditary nobility, the country cannot easily be conquered, or rather not at all. They may be beat once or twice, but they still recover under their natural heads. Eastern countries, for this very reason that they want these, make feeble resistance against foreign invaders. Polygamy is exceedingly hurtful to a nation’s populousness.

An hundred women married to an hundred men will have more children than the same number married to two or three. China, India, and Egypt are populous despite polygamy. In those countries there are regulations regarding populousness, and some other circumstances contribute to it, such as the remarkable fertility of the soil.

Thus, there are 2 kinds of marriage:

  1. Polygamy
  2. Monogamy, which is of 3 kinds:
  • The husband can divorce the wife at pleasure
  • The power of divorce is equally in their power
  • Divorce is in the power of the civil magistrate entirely

Where polygamy is allowed, the wife is entirely in the power of the husband, he may divorce her or dispose of her as he pleases.

The laws concerning monogamy differ according to the species of it.

That kind where the contract or agreement is indissoluble but by the civil magistrate, is the most convenient. By this indeed nothing but what is very disagreeable to society is the occasion of divorce. But it is always better that the marriage tie should be too strait, than that it should be too loose.


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