What was Lewis Henry Morgan’s contribution?
The 550 pages of Lewis Henry Morgan’s “Ancient Society” (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985; “a direct photographic reproduction of the corrected 1878 edition”) reveal how Morgan was able to draw on a huge amount of then-existing ethnographic information on clan-based societies all over the world.
Morgan gave special recognition to his use of the ethnographic material in Johann Jakob Bachofen’s “Das Mutterrecht” (“Mother Right”) of 1861. “In a work of vast research,” Morgan writes, “Bachofen has collected and discussed the evidence of female authority (mother-right) and of female rule (gyneocracy) among the Lycians, Cretans, Athenians, Lemnians, Egyptians, Orchomenians, Loerians, Lesbians, Mantineans, and among eastern Asiatic nations.” (p. 349) He also credits the reports of numerous other observers of pre-class and early class, Indigenous societies in North America, Australia and elsewhere.
The various labels that have been used in discussing the different stages of early human social groups can be confusing and, occasionally, off-putting. The earliest groupings, perhaps covering both humans and pre-human species and believed to be small in number and migratory, are usually referred to as “bands,” although the word “hordes” is also encountered.
We find the whole earliest period of human evolution referred to as “savagery” in many older texts and the following period, composed of clans and tribal societies, as “barbarism.” Morgan used the word “gens” (plural form ”gentes” and adjective form “gentile”) to describe the basic organizational form of the Iroquois peoples of New York state, whom he had extensive personal knowledge of, but also more generally for this form of social organization. Such social groupings are, in contemporary texts, referred to as “clans” and consist of kin who, in theory at least, are all descended from a common ancestor.
Clans are distinguished from “tribes,” which are associations of clans and are groupings where we find the beginnings of male political and economic leadership roles in the process of historical social evolution toward “civilization,” another frequently used word that should be noted with tongue in cheek. Human societies that have arrived at a certain level of technological development, but which are lacking communality and are divided into classes of rich and poor, are what is actually being referenced by this term.
The matrilineal clan
Morgan’s research on matrilineal clans was almost global in its extent. Thus, the generalizations he formulated had a firm basis in reality.
Morgan describes: “The council was the great feature of ancient society. … The simplest and lowest form of the council was that of the gens. It was a democratic assembly because every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it. It elected and deposed its sachem and chiefs. …
“All the members of an Iroquois gens were personally free, and they were bound to defend each other’s freedom; they were equal in privileges and in personal rights, the sachem and chiefs claiming no superiority; and they were a brotherhood bound together by the ties of kin. Liberty, equality, and fraternity, though never formulated, were cardinal principles of the gens.” (pp. 84-85)
The matrilineal character of the early gentes, worldwide, is a theme to which Morgan returns repeatedly in “Ancient Society.” “A gens in the archaic period,” he states, “consisted of a supposed female ancestor and her children, together with the children of her daughters, and of her female descendants through females in perpetuity. The children of her sons, and of her male descendants, through males, were excluded.” (pp. 343-344)
Further ramifications of this form of social organization included the fact that the sons of male leaders could not inherit their father’s status or position. Neither could sons inherit the property of their father (“property,” which invariably would have been modest in value and personal in character, such as tools, ritual gear, weapons, etc.).
The ‘pairing’ marriage and its antecedent
Among the Indigenous peoples of North America, Morgan found what he termed “pairing families.” He considered this form to have developed from “the large groups in the marriage relation, which must have existed in the previous period [and] disappeared; and, in their place were married pairs, forming clearly marked, though but partially individualized families. … Several of [these families] were usually found in one house, forming a communal household, in which the principle of communism in living was practiced. The fact of the conjunction of several such families in a common household is of itself an admission that the family was too feeble an organization to face alone the hardships of life.” (p. 453)
Specifically, with regard to marriage among these peoples, Morgan writes: ”But the marriage institution was as peculiar as the family. Men did not seek wives as they are sought in civilized society, from affection, for the passion of love … was unknown among them. Marriage, therefore, was not founded upon sentiment but upon convenience and necessity.
“It was left to the mothers, in effect, to arrange the marriage of their children, and they were negotiated generally without the knowledge of the parties to be married, and without asking their previous consent. It sometimes happened that entire strangers were thus brought into the marriage relation. At the proper time they were notified when the simple nuptial ceremony would be performed.
“Such were the usages of the Iroquois and many other Indian tribes. Acquiescence in these maternal contracts was a duty which the parties seldom refused. … The relation … continued during the pleasure of the parties, and no longer. It is for this reason that it is properly distinguished as the pairing family. The husband could put away his wife at pleasure and take another without offence, and the woman enjoyed the equal right of leaving her husband and accepting another.” (p. 454)
In a footnote on page 455, Morgan quotes a missionary who spent many years among the Senecas: ”As to their family system, when occupying the old long-houses, it is probable that some one clan predominated, the women taking in husbands, however, from the other clans; and sometimes, for a novelty, some of their sons bringing in their young wives until they felt brave enough to leave their mothers. Usually, the female portion ruled the house, and were doubtless clannish enough about it.
“The stores were in common; but woe to the luckless husband or lover who was too shiftless to do his share of the providing. No matter how many children, or whatever goods he might have in the house, he might at any time be ordered to pick up his blanket and budge; and after such orders it would not be healthful for him to attempt to disobey. The house would be too hot for him; and, unless saved by the intersession of some aunt or grandmother, he must retreat to his own clan; or, as was often done, go and start a new matrimonial alliance in some other.
“The women were the great power among the clans, as everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when occasion required, ‘to knock off the horns,’ as it was technically called, from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of the warriors. The original nomination of the chiefs also always rested with them.”
The reference in the first sentence of this quotation to the “taking in [of] husbands … from the other clans” alludes to two important features of the pairing family: the exogamous character of clan marriage (always marrying outside one’s own clan) and matrilocality (the husband leaving his clan to join the wife’s clan).
Part 4 of this series will address how Morgan’s findings bolstered Marx and Engels’ materialist view of human social evolution.
McCubbin is the author of “The Roots of Lesbian and Gay Oppression: A Marxist View,” New York: World View Forum, 3rd ed., 1993.