There are many different opinions on divorce and its prevalence in our modern society. However, when looking through history or even talking with people of different generations, it is clear that divorce has evolved over the years. It got me to thinking – what are the real roots of divorce in America?
Researching the history of divorce sounds like a quite bland task, but through the course of my reading, I discovered that it was anything but tedious. A woman named Caroline Norton is an important figure, especially in Europe, for being instrumental in divorce legislation in the 1800’s in England. Europe views Norton as being important in Europe, but for history in general.
The grounds for divorce in the 1800’s in England were few and carried extreme penalties. A couple could be granted a separation through nullity, impotence, insanity, or [potential] incest. If one of these grounds was used, any children born to the couple were rendered illegitimate as a penalty, but the parties were permitted to remarry. Additionally, a couple could be granted a separation because of adultery, sodomy, or physical violence. However, in this case the couple would not be permitted to remarry. The final option for a couple in 1800’s England was to obtain a separation and then sue the other spouse for adultery. In this option, a spouse successful in the adultery lawsuit would eventually be granted a divorce by Parliament and the couple’s children would not be considered illegitimate. While this final option afforded the best result, it was nearly impossible for anyone to achieve; lawsuits were extremely expensive so it eliminated the option for most people.
Caroline Norton’s crusade for divorce rights could be the subject of its own lengthy essay, however the main point is that she singlehandedly changed the landscape of separation and divorce. In a time where married women were low on the totem pole, children were the property of their father, and the Church controlled marriage and divorce, Norton’s peaceful crusade resulted in legislation which allowed for women’s property rights, custodial rights over children, and most of all, divorce.
Reading through details of the evolution of divorce legislation in England is extremely intricate and detailed, but then I dug a little deeper for some American history on divorce. Interestingly enough, America has its first recorded divorce in 1643 – about 200 years before Caroline Norton’s crusade! Anne Clarke, who lived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was granted a divorce by the Quarter Court in Boston after her husband abandoned her for another woman and refused to return home. Denis Clarke admitted in a signed affidavit that he had left his wife for another woman with whom he also had children. Denis also stated his refusal to return to his wife. With this, the Court essentially had no choice but to grant a divorce to Anne Clark and stated in the final order that it was due to the abandonment by her husband and his refusal to be with her.
Given the history of the American colonies, it does make sense that recorded divorces would come earlier in America than in England. The American colonies viewed marriage as a civil matter, while England held on longer to the Church’s involvement in the mechanics of marriage and separation/divorce. One can definitely draw the connection between modern grounds of divorce and historical grounds (abandonment, adultery, etc.), however, New York no longer requires grounds. Interestingly enough, an indication of an impending divorce in the colonies could be found by looking in the local newspapers. Husbands would post in the papers that they would no longer be liable for debts incurred by their [ex-] wives.Today, there is usually a strong desire on both parties to keep the issues private.
America’s first recorded divorce came over 350 years ago in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Society was infinitely different then than it is now, but the roots of divorce still have many similarities to the process today. The sworn and sealed filings and the financial implications all remain important characteristics of divorce in modern day America. While England has reason to take pride in Caroline Norton’s crusade for divorce rights and legislation, America can remain proud in its traditional of organization, efficiency, and the ability to choose various processes to obtain a divorce. Couples now a days are free to create an agreement that is unique to their relationship and their family.