Divorce: An American Tradition

Divorce: An American Tradition

Divorce: An American Tradition

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.

Excerpt

During the past several decades, people all over the world have expressed astonishment and disbelief concerning the spread of divorce in the United States. Americans in particular have examined divorce from every angle, often reproaching themselves and their tension-laden, urban, industrial society for making divorce a widespread American phenomenon. The historical record, however, indicates that contemporary American divorce is more than a recent outgrowth of a troubled modern society. American divorce has a long and venerable history: Puritan settlers first introduced it in the American colonies during the early 1600s. The resulting institution of American divorce was vital, and growing, long before late twentieth- century Americans carried it to its current state.

Still, of the more than one hundred and fifty Americans whom I interviewed concerning their knowledge of historical divorce in the United States, the majority were surprised to learn that Puritan colonists condoned and practiced divorce. I concluded that as contemporary Americans grapple with the complexities of life and personal relationships in the late twentieth century, they tend to look back at early America as an idyllic age characterized by simplicity and family harmony. They firmly believe that enduring marriages and peaceful family life were the rule among colonial Americans.

While this image of the "good old days" of the nation's marital harmony may be reassuring, it is inaccurate. We see our ancestors as we wish they were--peaceful and loving--rather than as they really were--human and often contentious. Surviving court and other records reveal that a number of colonial Americans sought divorces after they experienced disillusionment or dissatisfaction in marriages. The first American couple to divorce obtained their decree in 1639 from a Puritan court in Massachusetts. Anecdotal evidence indicates that . . .

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