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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
As late as 1947, a primer called ABC of Divorce asked, “Have You Considered the Attitudes of Others?” and “Where Does the Boss Stand on Divorce?”
Divorce, nonetheless, persisted, even flourished. The social revolution of the sixties liberalized policy, transformed attitudes, and ushered in no-fault laws. Now when a marriage foundered, there were casualties but no culprit. Greeting-card companies cashed in on the phenomenon: “I’ve just heard … You’re free as a bird.” In the political arena, divorce became an occasion for humor rather than an issue—remember the anti-Ronald Reagan buttons suggesting that Jane Wyman was right? —yet the moralists and the policymakers continued to fret. The governor of California cited the “festering problem” of divorce and appointed a committee to find ways to slow the rising rate, resulting in a 1969 law combining no-fault principles with judicial control. The relationship-enhancement movement that began training spouses in marriage “skills” in the fifties has burgeoned into big business. Recently, Arizona and Louisiana instituted the option of “covenant marriage,” which requires the bride and groom to sign a contract permitting divorce only on grounds of adultery, abuse, abandonment, imprisonment of a spouse, or long marital separation. We have come full circle to colonial practice, but now spouses, rather than the state or church, are trying to legislate the marital happiness that continues to elude them.
America embraced divorce because it believed in marriage. Not marriage as the rest of the world practiced it—grounded in property rights, arranged by others, maintained in form, degraded in practice—but marriage as a lifelong love affair, an endless ride on the roller coaster of romance, an enduring affirmation of the specialness of self as reflected in another’s eyes. In America a happy marriage is every individual’s birthright. We hunger after it ourselves, hope for it for our children, even expect it from our politicians. In 1952 political wisdom predicted Adlai Stevenson could not win the Presidency because he was a divorced man. Stevenson’s marital status never became a campaign issue, possibly because the Republicans believed the Democrats had a copy of a letter citing Dwight Eisenhower’s own intent to seek a divorce after the war. Still, the Democratic party was sufficiently broadminded to nominate a divorced man twice. In more recent times, as many pundits have noted, it takes a divorced man like Newt Gingrich or Bob Dole to appreciate family values.
Perhaps the exercise in what-if history at the beginning of this article got it wrong. Perhaps an America in thrall to the idea of love would have forgiven Franklin Roosevelt and elected him to its highest office. Depression-era audiences flocked to escapist romantic comedies with happy endings. Perhaps Eleanor would have overcome the stigma of divorce, as she conquered so many other prejudices of her time and class, and gone on to fight its injustices.
Divorce is an American institution. It was born of a continent’s imperatives and a people’s love of independence and infatuation with individualism. It came of age colored by the problem of slavery and the issue of race. It flourished in our entrepreneurial climate and in spite of our prudishness, or perhaps because of our prurience. But most of all, America turned divorce into a national passion because of our fervent belief in love and marriage, and love in marriage.