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...
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.
“[A] thoroughgoing and thoroughly intelligent study . . . All those tempted to join the new crusade against divorce should be required to read Divorce: An American Tradition cover to cover and pencil in hand. They may be forced to conclude, along with many of our ancestors, that divorce is indeed a great evil and source of much suffering. But then so is the institution that generates it—marriage, especially marriage under conditions of gross inequality between the sexes.”—New York Times Book Review
No one has so carefully researched this subject before or written so intelligently about it.”—Chicago Tribune
American Historical Review
“Well researched and very readable . . . [Riley] leaves her readers with suggestions for future divorce policy, calling for a more sensitive and humane approach in the practice of this centuries-old social and legal institution.”—American Historical Review
About the Author: Glenda Riley is Alexander M. Bracken Professor of History at Ball State University. Among her many publications are Inventing the American Woman, Women and Indians on the Frontier, The Female Frontier, and A Place to Grow: Women in the American West.