- Historic Sites
Liberty And Disunion
Three Centuries of Divorce, American Style
October 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 6
But the march toward a Zion of easy divorce was not an unchecked triumphal procession. Most divorces were still granted on conventional grounds, like that given to John Pyle of Kentucky in 1819 from Lucinda Woodward, whom he espoused in the faith “that she was a virtuous and chaste woman,” only to find later that she was “sometime advanced in a state of pregnancy with another man.” Moreover, there were holdouts; there was impassioned debate; and as the century ended, there was a definite pendulum swing of reaction. New York, for example, repeatedly defeated efforts to amend its 1787 law, which allowed no grounds for divorce save proven adultery, while South Carolina was even more adamant and made no provision at all for divorce. South Carolina was traditionally a bastion of conservatism (as late as 1860 it still had its legislature choosing the Presidential electors). In New York the political combinations opposing divorce-law changes always held a majority.
In the general clamor of argument over what made he good society, marriage and separation were debated with increasing fervor in the middle third of the century. There were anti-Christian spokesmen like Henry James, Sr. (father of the novelist and the psychologist), who wrote in a newspaper debate: “Jesus Christ may be an excellent practical authority for your and my private conscience, but he should not be writing the laws of social union.” There were rampant feminist individualists like Victoria Woodhull, who advocated that the state keep its hands entirely off the relationships between men and women and who, when taunted with advocating free love, shot back: “Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable constitutional, and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please.” There were freethinking political liberals like Indiana’s Robert Dale Owen, veteran of the Utopian community of New Harmony founded by his philanthropist father. Owen pointed out that the existing law allowed a husband to assault and rape his wife nightly with impunity, provided that he supported her—and that this made her a particularly harshly exploited prostitute.
Opposing such ideas were marital conservatives like the New York Tribune ’s editor Horace Greeley (a violent reformer of other institutions), who sputtered in 1852 that liberalizing the laws of divorce would “result in a general profligacy and corruption such as this country has never known, and few of our people can adequately imagine.” It would create a world in which “libertines would resort to marriage as a cloak for lecherous designs,” unterrified by the spectre of prosecution for bigamy and adultery. In 1860 Greeley added that America must beware of the example of Rome, which, “under the sway of easy divorce, rotted away and perished- blasted by the mildew of unchaste mothers and dissolute homes.”
Rome was much on the minds of conservatives in the booming post-Civil War era of expansion. The rush westward, the urban explosion, the rise of factories and a permanent working-class population, heavy immigration- all these seemed to threaten the homogeneous world of small towns and farms, and stable families, that had been America’s strength. Fear was voiced that success would spoil the simple nation born in Philadelphia in 1776, just as empire had supposedly undone the virtuous republic of Cincinnatus. Rome’s easy divorce rules, according to President Theodore Dwight Woolsey of Yale in 1867, were considered a special horror and warning to Americans by those whose anxiety rose with the revelation that the divorce rate was rising more rapidly than the increase of population. The actual numbers were not great (and statistics of divorce were, and to some extent are, extremely hard to collect and interpret). But a jump from just under ten thousand in the country in 1867 to over twenty-five thousand in 1886 was an alarm bell ringing in the ears of those who believed, with the Reverend Samuel W. Dike, of Auburndale, Massachusetts, that “the simple family of Christian civilization … one man and one woman, united in wedlock, together with their children” was the germ of villages, states, and mighty nations, and continually reproduced “the ethical history of man.”
Action was necessary. Conservatives recoiled not only from the figures but from stories of divorces procured by fraud and bribery and from newspaper accounts of marriages broken up for what seemed light and transient causes—the “cruelty,” to cite one case, of a husband whose offense was frequently reading Scripture to his wife to remind her, in St. Paul’s explicit metaphors, of her duty of obedience. “Instead of resisting the erroneous and sinful inclinations of human nature,” wrote one clergyman in 1892, “the State … surrenders to them almost without condition.”