Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Family Practices and Domestic Problems in a Transatlantic World: Reconstructing the Curious Case of Maria Alston

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Family Practices and Domestic Problems in a Transatlantic World: Reconstructing the Curious Case of Maria Alston

Article excerpt

NINETY YEARS AGO, THIS MAGAZINE CARRIED AN ESSAY BY D. E. Huger Smith recounting the story of the Nisbetts, a family of Scottish aristocrats with significant landholding interests in eighteenth-century South Carolina.1 On November 15, 1797, Sir John Nisbett of Dean married Maria Alston, the eldest child of wealthy rice planter Colonel William Alston of Clifton.2 Smith could say littleofwhathappened to the couple. His conclusion was that the Nisbett connection to South Carolina ended with a reference to Maria in her father's will of November 1838. In this he was strictly correct, as there were no surviving children of the marriage and the baronetcy had become extinct with Sir John's death a decade earlier. However, Smith did not uncover the true nature of the marital relations between Sir John and Maria.3 In short, the couple's relationship rapidly broke down and became one of the rare instances for the period of a publicly failed marriage, evidenced to the world by their physical separation and the series of legal arrangements and court proceedings that followed. Developed from a range of original American and British sources, the intriguing story of the marriage and its consequences can now be told. Maria's curious case provides a new perspective on the family practices of the planter "aristocracy" of the Carolina low country, including the role of women and children and the limitations of the power of the slave-owning patriarch.

The significance of the family in colonial South Carolina has long been recognized by historians. Like other frontier societies, its primacy originated from transatlantic kinship networks and high mortality rates among early European settlers, but towards the end of the eighteenth century, the family institution took on a distinctive local hue. Through intermarriage, the most prominent economic and political groups in South Carolina gradually coalesced into a single planter class. According to George C. Rogers Jr., "Marriage was the cement of the new society. The importance of family in the society and culture of Charleston cannot be overestimated."4 In this context, Rogers's comment pertains to not only the city of Charleston but also the wider low country. Across the region, in the words of another scholar, "The family group has been at once the source of social and political strength."5

The place of women within this culture was well defined. A daughter was expected to become a wife and a mother. As the author of one study characterizes it, she existed "to love, honor [and] obey . . . her husband, to bring up his children and manage his household."6 Reality may have fallen short of the ideal, but women had an essential function as "keepers of the culture" and "the 'conscience' of plantations."7 In line with the longestablished custom, a woman's legal personality was subsumed within that of her husband upon marriage. In return, the man had a duty to maintain his wife. Originally conceived as an indissoluble union, changing attitudes toward marriage in the United States led some northern states to introduce divorce legislation by the early nineteenth century, and several states in the South soon followed suit.8 South Carolina was not one of them, however. As related by one jurist at the time, the South Carolina General Assembly did not grant divorces because it considered the dissolution of marriage to be a judicial power, yet it refused to sanction the law courts to award divorces so as "to shut that door to domestic discord, and to gross immorality in the community."9

The prohibition on divorce in South Carolina can be viewed as part of the planters' more general opposition to social change. It was "a rigid means of upholding the patriarchal structure which had served as the essential underpinning for both the family and slavery," writes Janet Hudson.10 No one invested more in these twin institutions than the Alston family. John Alston, Maria's great-great-grandfather, arrived in the Carolina colony as an indentured servant from England in 1682. …

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