- Historic Sites
Liberty And Disunion
Three Centuries of Divorce, American Style
October 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 6
By 1970 the total number of divorces granted per thousand of population had reached 3.3, as against 0.5 per thousand in 1890. Yet those concerned for the future of marriage did not need to despair entirely. Divorce statistics are only an approximation of truth. Sometimes, it is true, they understate the actual rate of marital breakups. They do not, for example, show the hundreds of thousands of husbands over the years who, lacking funds or inclination to go to court, take the poor man’s divorce, and desert. But on the other hand they sometimes paint a needlessly gloomy picture of social reality. Migratory divorces hugely swell the rate in easy jurisdictions—but over-all account for fewer than 5 per cent of the nation’s separations. Or to take another instance, the most common ground for divorce in nineteenth-century America was adultery, with cruelty far behind—the reverse of today’s situation. Were our forebears kinder, but more given to extramarital dalliance? Of course not. Adultery was then the most commonly acceptable grounds in court, and therefore the most frequently cited, truthfully or otherwise. Cruelty has become a more common plea in our time because courts are willing to interpret the word so broadly that it often means only incompatibility.
Whatever the future of matrimony in America, it can only be seen in a glass, darkly, in divorce figures. The American divorce rate has, in fact, been exceeded from time to time in recent years by nations as diverse as Japan, Algeria, Israel, Russia, and Egypt. In all these countries, as in this one, marriage is perhaps not so much in trouble as in transition. What is changing is a set of basic concepts about whose rights, in marriage, are paramount—those of the man, the woman, the children, or society. Finally, in the United States marriage is actually more popular than ever. Nine out of ten divorced people remarry, and a huge percentage of the new marriages endure until death. And first marriages continue to boom. In 1900 little more than half of all Americans over the age of fourteen were united in wedlock. In 1970 the proportion was up to 67 per cent for men and 62 per cent for women.
Marriage and divorce will undoubtedly take novel shapes in the age of the Pill and the abortion, to say nothing of other sweeping social changes. These new configurations will owe much, as they have in the past, to two factors. One is the universal human and social need both for marriage and for escape from marriage. The other is the unique mixture of traditions and outlooks that characterizes the United States’ population in the third century of her national existence. In its own way, divorce in the land of the free will also continue to be as American as apple pie.