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Till Divorce Do Us Part
It has been with us since Plymouth Colony. But that’s not why it’s an American institution.
November 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 7
On September evening in 1918, while unpacking an overseas bag for her husband, who had returned from a fact-finding tour of war-torn Europe with double pneumonia, Eleanor Roosevelt came upon a cache of love letters from her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Later Eleanor would write that the bottom fell out of her world. She did what any high-minded wife would have done at the time: She offered her husband his freedom. Guilty, grief-stricken, but besotted by the lovely Miss Mercer, Franklin accepted his wife’s offer. After six months in Reno, which had recently replaced Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as America’s foremost divorce mill, Eleanor, mindful of the shame and potential scandal that stalked a divorcée, withdrew to a small safe circle of wellborn friends and relatives. Franklin, dismissed from his position by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, who had hounded his own brother-in-law from the family newspaper and the state of North Carolina for a similar offense, took the second Mrs. Roosevelt back to Hyde Park. He could not, however, return to his beloved Springwood, overlooking the Hudson; his mother, who held the purse strings, had disinherited him, as she’d threatened to do if he disgraced the family with a divorce. He lived out his days in the general vicinity, pursuing a series of agricultural and forestry experiments. Fourteen years later a Depression-wracked nation elected Newton D. Baker its thirty-second President. In the annals of twentieth-century history, Franklin D. Roosevelt merits a brief listing as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson. Eleanor Roosevelt is not mentioned at all.
The story is true, up to a point. Eleanor Roosevelt did offer her husband a divorce, but Franklin declined. He loved Lucy, but he ached to be President. “It is better to marry than to burn,” St. Paul said, and opened an alternative path to salvation for those who could not embrace celibacy. In Franklin Roosevelt’s case, it was better to stay married than to burn. Everyone knew the American people would not elect a divorced man to their highest office.
It is hard to believe that a small adjustment between two people or, as is frequently the case, among three, can arouse such passions and alter the course of history. But the powerful emotions divorce stirs grow out of the primitive lusts it seeks to contain. Divorce is society’s attempt to regulate the urge for sex and the desire for property. Small wonder that it inflames; less that it is always with us.
The Romans codified it. The Catholic Church both forbade it and circumvented it with annulment. The Protestant sects fought about it endlessly. “Good God, what a bother these matrimonial cases are to us!” Martin Luther lamented. Milton, who wrote four tracts on divorce around the time his young wife left him, saw it as a kind of paradise regained. When a couple ceased to love each other, he argued, they were no longer married in God’s eyes, and there was “no power above their own consent to hinder them from unjoining.” But if divorce germinated in the Old World, it blossomed in the New.
In 1639, while England still ruled marriage indissoluble, the Plymouth Colony granted the first divorce on the new continent, and in the next 60 years the Massachusetts Bay Colony recorded 44 more. By the mid-nineteenth century, other nations saw the American divorce rate, the highest in the world, as a sign of low morals. Canadians despaired of Americans’ absence of restraint, which was “manifested in lynchings and murders” as well as divorce, and one study found that U.S. Mennonites were four times as likely to divorce as their Canadian co-religionists. Could it be something in the water?
Though a spirit of independence had sent the early settlers across an ocean, survival in a vast and unwelcoming continent had required cooperation. The repeated hammering of a husband’s fists, however, or the constant lashing of a wife’s tongue tended to alienate the neighbors. Adultery was even more disruptive to the village peace, and bigamy led to chaos. Thus, in 1639, when James Luxford’s wife discovered her husband’s other spouse, the Plymouth Colony not only granted her that first divorce but fined him a hundred pounds, sentenced him to an hour in the stocks on market day, and banished him to England. Throughout the colonial period, alimony would be rare, but fines, whipping, and the stocks were common.
One of the ironies of the period was that divorce was obtainable, if not easy, in Puritan New England but difficult, if not impossible, in the supposedly easygoing South. The difference goes to the heart of the battles swirling around divorce. Was it a legal, moral, or social issue—the domain of lawmakers, soul savers, or do-gooders?
The New England colonies viewed marriage, and therefore divorce, as a secular rather than religious rite. The first marriage in the Plymouth Colony, which predated the first divorce by a mere 18 years, was “performed by the magistrate, as being a civil thing.” The Southern colonies also put marriage in the secular sphere, but when it came to divorce, they clung to the Anglican Church. What God had joined together, albeit through the auspices of the state, no man might put asunder.