Chadds Ford Historical Society

Revisiting History

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Revoking Vows: A Glimpse at Marriage and Divorce in colonial Pennsylvania

“Husbands explained their arguments with logic and patience, and wives attempted to persuade their husbands by good examples and moral certainties, but submitted to their requests if they could not.” 

So wrote Dr. Merril Smith, formerly a history professor at Temple University, regarding marriage expectations during the very first years of American colonization.  However, as ideas began to change and the threat of a war against Mother England loomed, so did approaches to marriage.  

The traditional way held its ground in the face of rapid changes.  Love was seen as a result of years of marriage, not a factor in choosing a spouse.  Husbands must act with love and gentleness towards their wives, but ultimately they were the leaders of families.  Wives should guide their husbands by their virtue and grace, while submitting to the men’s decisions.  Of course, certain societal mores act as inhibitors on the husbands’ power.  Neighbors and family members often became involved when a marriage grew physically abusive, sometimes by interfering directly or acting as witnesses in courts.  For example, neighbor John Lewis once had to restrain John Evans from kicking and beating Evans’s wife, Sarah.  

However, flaws in this traditional approach soon arose.  Since the men were the heads of the family, they had ultimate say over all matters, including management of finances.  However, in poor families, the women often worked as well, leading some wives to want a say in budgets.  Many husbands also wasted money on alcohol, impoverishing his family.  In other cases, it might simply be that the wife could do a better job.  

Aided by revolutionary propaganda, a second viewpoint gained popularity.  The Quakers have always seen marriage as a partnership of equals, and the Revolution encouraged the same thinking.  The choosing of one’s own spouse is a statement against tyranny and a fight for individual liberty.  An advice column in 1774 advised a woman, who found herself having to choose between two suitors, to marry the man she loves, as long as he is financially sufficient.  Here, one sees a growing emphasis on personal feelings, but only as long as he can provide.  It seems that pass a certain threshold, the importance of wealth gave significant ground to affection.  

During the late 18th and early 19th century, both views of marriage often came to head, especially when one spouse holds one mindset and the other believes the other mindset.  In those cases, the two must learn to live together, compromise their values, and work as one despite their competing ways of thinking.  While divorce was available, it was uncommon.  Many, when in an unhappy marriage, either gritted their teeth and bore it or simply abandoned their spouses.  In colonial America, it was much easier for men to desert their wives, as they had more means and were less noticeable traveling alone.  However, some women did manage to find help with family members.  After a wife deserts her husband, he may, as many husbands did, put a notice in the newspapers.  The notice served two functions.  One:  it was a way for him to portray himself as the blameless victim.  Second, it told the world that he no longer had any duties to maintain her.  She had left him.  She chose to give up on his support, both legally and financially.  He was free from any obligations to her.  

Yet many did sue for divorce.  236 women and 131 men filed for divorce before the Supreme Court from 1785 to 1815.  The majority of men (64%) cited adultery as grounds for divorce, no doubt influenced by the Great Awakening’s championship of the ideal “passionless” wife.  The higher rates of wives is surprising since divorce was riskier for women.  There was always the danger that if a woman lost her divorce case, that her husband would either refuse to take her back or mistreat her even more than before the case.  Even if she did win, a woman’s societal status would be diminished greatly by divorce.  She would be an outcast.  She would have less of a chance to remarry.  She would have fewer resources to support herself and any children who may be dependent on her.  Therefore, the bed and board divorce may be a better option for some.  The bed and board divorce provided the wife with alimony, while a full separation would not.  However, it would also inhibit her from remarrying.  

Of course, we still have these issues today in marriage.  Who has the final say on budgeting?  If marriage is a partnership, what happens when the partners can’t agree?  What are the pros and cons of obtaining a divorce?  That’s one advantage of studying history.  You learn that there have been hundreds of men like your husband.  

All information comes from Merril D. Smith’s “Breaking the Bonds” (1991).