Private Acts in Public Places: A Social History of Divorce in the Formative Era of American Family Law

Private Acts in Public Places: A Social History of Divorce in the Formative Era of American Family Law

Private Acts in Public Places: A Social History of Divorce in the Formative Era of American Family Law

Private Acts in Public Places: A Social History of Divorce in the Formative Era of American Family Law

Synopsis

Richard H. Chused examines more than 1300 petitions for divorce in Maryland filed during the first half of the nineteenth century. By weaving together information on the legislative handling of these petitions, the voting patterns of the state legislators, and the judicial treatment of related disputes, Chused shows the connections between politics, regional differences, and the development of American family law. His analysis also provides valuable insights into the social history of the time, a period when traditional Southern family values were at odds with the more modern values brought about by urbanization.

Excerpt

Before 1841, divorce was a legislative affair in Maryland. Those wishing to divorce sought the aid of representatives in the House of Delegates of the General Assembly, who filed petitions in the lower house seeking passage of private acts ending the marriages of their constituents. Between 1790 and 1850, the state legislature passed 549 divorce acts and three acts of annulment. During the 1841 legislative session, Maryland’s courts gained authority, concurrent with the legislature, to sever marital bonds. Only in 1851, after the new state constitution’s provision barring legislative divorce took effect, was the General Assembly ousted from day-to-day oversight of family life.

The first private divorce bill passed after the Revolutionary War was obtained in 1790 by John Sewell, of Talbot County, Maryland. The act’s preamble instructs us that his wife, Eve Sewell, was convicted in county court of adultery for bearing a mulatto child. Mother and child were condemned to servitude. The General Assembly granted John a divorce, taking care in the legislation to protect the legitimacy of the white children of John Sewell born before Eve’s conviction. Statements confirming the legitimacy of children were common in the early private divorce acts, most of which were adopted on adultery grounds. Of the fifty legislative divorces or annulments passed between 1790 and 1815, thirty-nine, or 78 percent, had clauses protecting the legitimacy of children of the severed marriages.

Though Eve’s behavior must have been widely condemned, John struggled for more than two years to obtain his divorce. He first petitioned for a private bill at the 1788 session. The effort failed in the House of Delegates by a 34 to 22 vote despite a statement from the committee considering Sewell’s petition that “sufficient evidence has been adduced to establish …[the facts] as represented” and a recommendation that “an act ought immediately to pass annulling the said marriage agreeably to the prayer of the said petition.” As John Sewell discovered, the General Assembly was reluctant to grant divorces to anyone during the last decade of the eighteenth-century.

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