Liberty And Disunion

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In New England, where forming improvement associations was almost second nature to worried intellectuals, a New England Divorce Reform League was founded in 1881. Four years later it went national, renaming itself the National Divorce Reform League, and in 1897 it broadened its activities to include assaults on “disreputable houses” and other threats to the chastity of both sexes and became the National League for the Protection of the Family. The league lobbied actively for toughening state divorce laws. It wanted longer residence requirements, the prohibition of rapid remarriage after divorce, and strict procedures for notifying defendants whose spouses had gone out of state to seek divorces and for giving them a chance to respond. It wanted high standards set for corroborative proof of charges of adultery or cruelty.

The league succeeded in getting a number of states to adopt such measures and appears to have slowed down the pace of divorce actions in some areas. In addition the league’s tireless secretary, the Reverend Samuel W. Dike, worked effectively to get federal support for the collection of accurate marriage and divorce figures. And the organization launched strong efforts to create uniformity in separation procedures. It sponsored an interdenominational conference of 1903, which failed by only a small margin to adopt a united front against the remarriage of divorced parties whose original churches would not approve. (If adopted it would have prevented a Presbyterian clergyman, for example, from performing nuptial rites between an ex-Catholic and a Presbyterian.) The league was also behind a 1906 National Congress on Divorce Laws, which drew up a standard code that it hoped would be adopted by all states, so as to erase the dividing line between hard and easy jurisdictions. There was no sign of any widespread intent by state legislatures to comply, and the divorce reformers then tried to build unity by turning the matter over to the federal government through a constitutional amendment. This effort never got anywhere. One version of such an amendment was fruitlessly proposed by Kansas senator Arthur Capper as late as 1947.

The gains of the league in some states, however, only enhanced the attractions of more lenient commonwealths, especially those where it was pleasant to linger. Divorce opponents could not wholly stamp out one of the oddest phenomena of American matrimonial history—the “quickie” divorce colony.

“The effort to base legal rules on moral and religious principles,” observed Viscount James Bryce, “leads naturally to casuistry.” In strict divorce jurisdictions that effort led to downright fabrication. Otherwise honorable men and women who could no longer suffer coexistence under the same roof went into court and “confessed,” with pathetic willingness, to adultery, desertion, and other offenses in order to be freed. For those seeking migratory divorce, the truth stretching included a willingness to pretend that one proposed to become a resident of a new state, while the actual intent was to take the decree and decamp. In this prevarication migratory divorce seekers were encouraged by many communities whose Protestant ethic radiated contradictory messages. They respected the sanctity of the marital union. But they also wished to be diligent in their business and to collar any profits to be made out of marriage’s decline and fall.

A modern generation, seeing the Midwest as the capital of corn, the seedbed of temperance and old time fundamentalist religion, may have some trouble in visualizing it as the former locale of the nation’s divorce capitals. Yet so it was. Indiana was the original divorce mecca, until its legislature, in the 1870’s, tightened the residency laws. The best-known divorce center then became Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which showed great enterprise in profiting from those drawn to the state (admitted in 1889) by its mild divorce statutes and short residence requirement.

A reporter described the Sioux Falls scene in 1894. Each day’s train was likely to bring a few wives who were ready to become the plaintiffs in divorce suits. (Wives usually were the complaining party in prearranged divorces—partly out of male gallantry and partly because they could be spared from business to wait out a three-month residence requirement, raised to six in 1893.) A new arrival would be taken to a good hotel, such as the Cataract House or the Commercial House; and before she had finished unpinning her hat, lawyers would be sending up their cards. Once she had engaged one, for a total fee of perhaps two hundred and fifty dollars, her task was to pass the time. If she was respectable, there was reading, shopping, and riding. If not, there were three or four gambling houses where lady patrons were not unknown. Though Sioux Falls had prohibition, there was solace in whiskey and brandy “tonics” sold by drugstores. And there were young men-about-Sioux Falls who gladly squired lonely and soon-to-be-single ladies of fortune. As soon as the waiting period was over, the new “resident” went to the courthouse of Dakota granite to file her petition and soon thereafter to testify privately to a judge that her husband was guilty of desertion, adultery, or cruelty, depending on what her lawyer suggested. (Somehow the details now and then found their way into the press, particularly if the divorcée was a celebrity like Mrs. James G. Blaine, Jr., the daughter-in-law of the one-time Secretary of State.)