Friday, February 15, 2019

Divorce in the Colonial South

By all accounts, George and Martha Washington enjoyed a happy marriage for some forty years.  This was fortunate since options in cases of unhappy marriages were limited.  A woman could win a separate maintenance if a husband’s neglect or abuse made it clear that he was not fulfilling his husbandly duty to provide her adequately with clothing, food, and shelter or if he was endangering her life. Once separated from her husband, a woman could try to make her own living, but her chances of achieving financial security on her own were not good. The situation for elite women was somewhat different.  An elite wife who found her husband abusive or their marriage unhappy could usually finance an informal separation whereby she would live with friends and relatives.

There was rarely official religious or legal recognition that a marriage had collapsed.  Maryland legalized divorce in the early eighteenth century, but the other southern colonies made no such provision in their legal codes.  Any English subject could apply to the House of Lords in London for a divorce by means of a private Act of Parliament, but such a difficult and expensive procedure was out of the question for most people.  The situation changed little after the Revolution.  South Carolina did not permit divorce for another fifty years.  The first post-Independence divorce in Virginia did not occur until 1803.  The Georgia constitution of 1798 allowed divorce, but only if approved by a two thirds vote of the legislature.

A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in colonial America and the early republic.

Neither Martha Washington nor the women of the South’s leading families were marble statues, they had the same strengths and weaknesses, passions and problems, joys and sorrows, as the women of any age.  So just how did they live?

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