Divorce: An American Tradition

Synopsis

In 1639, Puritans in Massachusetts granted the first divorce in America, to Mrs. James Luxford, on grounds of bigamy (she was awarded Mr. Luxford's property and he was fined, placed in the stocks, then banished to England). Divorce has been a fact of American life ever since. Indeed, by 1880, one in sixteen marriages ended in divorce; by 1928, one in six; and today, one out of every two American marriages ends in divorce. In Divorce, Glenda Riley provides an intriguing history of marital breakdown in America, from colonial times to the present, revealing how America has become the divorce capital of the world. Riley describes how the Puritans broke radically with British tradition, treating marriage as a civil matter, after the fashion of Luther and Calvin, and granting civil divorce almost two centuries before England. She traces the gradual easing of divorce laws, as more and more grounds were added to existing statutes; highlights the great disparity of laws from state to state (Utah, for instance, granted consensual divorce by 1850, over a hundred years before it became common practice in other states, while South Carolina outlawed divorce completely until 1949); and examines the impact of westward migration and the growing importance of love. Riley brings her narrative right up to the 1990s, when marriages end at an astonishing rate, and single parent and blended families have become common. Throughout, the reader is treated to quite a bit of colorful history: the "divorce mills" that appeared in Indianapolis, Sioux Falls, Fargo, and, of course, Reno; the various alternatives to traditional marriage (such as the celibacy of the Shakers, or the group marriage of the Oneida community); and many fascinating divorce cases, from the obscure--such as the Connecticut woman who claimed her husband put dead chickens in her tea pot--to the infamous (such as the trial of Brigham Young, who when sued by one of his wives for a $200,000 settlement, quickly countersued, claiming the marriage was polygamous and thus illegal in the United States; he won the case). Divorce has become an American tradition, Riley concludes, and it will continue to be so, laws or religious prohibitions to the contrary. She argues that if we stop fighting over whether divorce is good or bad, and simply recognize that divorce is, we might work out a more equitable and helpful system of divorce for Americans.

Additional information

Contributors:
Publisher: Place of publication:
  • Lincoln, NE
Publication year:
  • 1991