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Liberty And Disunion
Three Centuries of Divorce, American Style
October 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 6
Appearances may be deceiving, but marriage in the United States looks as if it is in trouble. More couples—primarily young—are living together without the formality of marriage, and more couples—somewhat older and sadder—are ending their existing marriages in the courts. Some see in this the onset of American morality’s decline and fall. “Are we the last married generation?” asked columnist Harriet Van Home in a 1969 essay. “Well, if we are, prepare for anarchy, chaos, and a breakdown in all the civilized amenities.” True, those who dread the imminent death of marriage cannot find statistics of nonmarital pairings to support their fears. Such liaisons are not matters of legal record. But divorces are. And the records of them are coldly explicit. A Census Bureau report early in 1971 indicated that the number of divorced individuals in the population had risen some 33 per cent in the previous decade. While there were thirty-five divorced persons for every thousand married couples in 1960, there were forty-seven in 1970. The parade of couples to the courts to undo in repentance what they earlier wrought in mutual love is getting longer. That lengthened column, to some social critics, is evidence of a fresh disaster heaped by a permissive culture on venerable American institutions. They see a rising divorce rate as ominously in tune with an age of drugs, pornography, and flag burning.
Yet there is no new thing under the sun. In 1934 a Catholic publication lamented: “It is folly to say that the institution of marriage is in danger; the institution of marriage is gone.” In 1927 a woman’s magazine entitled an article: “Divorce for Every Marriage 1938 Prospect.” In 1891 the Nation brooded over the increase in American divorces, a calamity that it ascribed to: the general uneasiness and discontent with the existing constitution of society, to the decay in the belief in immortality and future punishment, to the great development of the means of travel and the migratory habits arising therefrom, to the enlarged consciousness of their rights … among women, and … the real increase of their independence due to new opportunities of self-support.
Four years earlier, in 1887, a New England clergyman had told an audience that in view of the rapidly increasing “evil of divorce” he doubted that there was “any considerable civilized people in the world … taking so great risks with the family as … these United States.” And twenty years before that a church journal warned that divorce was on the march and a time was “rapidly approaching” when “the public sentiment on this point shall be almost wholly debauched.”
Even earlier expressions of the same anxiety might be found. For divorce has long been a focus of debate in the United States, as in other nations inheriting the Judaeo-Christian tradition. On one hand stand those who see marital ruptures not merely in terms of individual pain and tragedy but as threats to marriage itself—a holy institution, the God-ordained source of the family, on which morality and civilization rest. In their eyes liberal divorce practices are dynamite for a responsible society.
On the other side are those who see in marriage simply an arrangement by which couples mate with tribal approval; a means for legitimizing children, sharing duties, and transmitting property and rank. Such “arrangements” may change from generation to generation without threatening the peace of the community. And individuals whose attraction for each other has died with the passing years may separate—with provision for the care of their children—without a feeling of moral leprosy.
While such theoretical debates crackle, unsuccessfully married couples continue to separate in fact—often in fine disregard of the predictions made by prophets on both sides. How these men and women are then dealt with by the law creates the actual weave of divorce practice in any country. In the United States the basic tug between tight and loose divorce laws has been molded by unusual circumstances. Some aspects of American life have encouraged easy separation; others have built up an almost unequalled resistance to it.
American marriage bonds have been loosened by the diversity of backgrounds of an immigrant people and the migratory habits of the pioneers. In addition, marriage and divorce are matters reserved to the states, and the variety of jurisdictions offers many opportunities to the shopper for release from the marital tie. On the other hand, family-worship has been especially intense in the United States. This is because on the frontier the isolated family often was the indispensable carrier of civilized values. Furthermore, religion has played a large role in shaping American popular thought, and the voice of the preacher—whether Protestant circuit rider in the hinterlands or urban Catholic priest has almost always been lifted to insist that what God hath joined, no man may put asunder.