Friday, February 22, 2013

Divorce in Victorian Times

Horace Greeley

Laws concerning divorce varied widely among the states throughout much of American history. In New England, where the Puritans had defined marriage as a civil contract rather than a religious sacrament, secular law had provided for divorce as early as the 17th century. Like any other contract, the marriage bond could be broken when either of the contracting parties failed to meet the obligations it imposed. Adultery, impotence, desertion, or conviction for serious crimes, were all grounds for divorce. Additionally, wives could obtain a divorce on the grounds of non-support.

In most states in the early 19th century, an act of the legislature was required to end a marriage. As the century progressed divorce laws became more liberal. During the 1850s, Indiana was widely condemned for its liberal ways. A couple in Indiana could obtain a divorce on any grounds that a judge ruled “proper”. Indiana judges were far more permissive than the New York City judge who in 1861 refused to grant a divorce to a wife whose husband had beaten her unconscious in an argument over letting the family dog sleep on the bed. The judge advised the woman that “one or two acts of cruel treatment” were not proper grounds for divorce. Indiana’s liberal stance on divorce attracted a flood of applicants from other states. The influential newspaper editor and future presidential nominee, Horace Greeley denounced Indiana as “the paradise of free-lovers” whose example would soon lead to “a general profligacy and corruption such as this country has never known.”

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