Based on research in almost 500 divorce files, The Great Catastrophe of My Life involves a wide cross-section of Virginians. Their stories expose southern attitudes and practices involving a spectrum of issues from marriage and family life to gender relations, interracial sex, adultery, desertion, and domestic violence. Although the oppressive legal regime these husbands and wives battled has passed away, the emotions behind their efforts to dissolve the bonds of marriage still resonate strongly.
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The Great Catastrophe of My LifeDivorce in the Old Dominion
By Thomas E. Buckley
University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
Writing in a careful hand on a single sheet of paper, in 1786 Susanah Wersley begged Virginia's General Assembly for a divorce. She described herself as a victim of the American Revolution. Five years earlier, while the fighting raged close to her home in Hanover County, her family had sheltered a sick colonial soldier, John Wersley, who claimed to be an officer from North Carolina. During a prolonged convalescence he courted the impressionable young woman. Susanah fell in love and, against the advice of her parents and other relatives, married him the following spring. The newlyweds had lived together for just a month when her husband announced that he needed to visit his mother briefly in New Bern. Susanah eventually discovered that he was in Boston. Obviously John had deceived her into marriage and never intended to live with her again. She petitioned the legislature to pass a private bill dissolving their marriage. No other venue existed where she might seek relief. The state had no divorce code, and the courts lacked jurisdiction.
The approach Susanah Wersley took to remedy her situation was not unusual. Throughout the colonial periodand at least until the Civil War, women and men, singly or in groups, sought relief of varied kinds and expressed their views on a host of subjects by petitioning their elected representatives. At each session the lawmakers approved dozens of private bills to assist individuals and communities. But they rejected Susanah's petition, as they would hundreds of others from unhappy spouses for the next sixty-five years. During that time the assembly approved divorces for only one-third of the applicants. Meanwhile, decades passed before the courts gained even the most limited authority. The way Virginians terminated marriages dramatically illustrates how far removed we are from their world. In our no-fault era the very idea of asking legislators to provide a divorce by private bill boggles the mind. But well into the nineteenth century, Virginia law afforded no other option for desperately unhappy women and men trapped in loveless relationships.
The stories of their troubled marriages and the multiple obstacles to ending them form the core of this book. The experiences of the petitioners reveal the harsh legal culture that surrounded divorce in the Old South. Although each case must be taken on its own terms, the structure of the legal system ensured that all petitions shared certain features. Each attempted divorce played itself out in a series of minidramas with multiple legal actors and institutions. In virtually every scene various parties debated, explicitly or implicitly, core values such as personal happiness, family stability, and the welfare of society. Husband and wife possessed the principal roles even though, as in the case of John Wersley, one party might have been absent during some or all of the legal exchanges. Domestic settings vary dramatically, yet some tragedies are strikingly familiar. One spouse might simply have abandoned the other. More often a third party emerges as the source of alienated affections. If that person is African American, race heightens the tension. Sometimes extreme verbal abuse and physical brutality arrest one's attention and arouse sympathy for the aggrieved individual, usually a wife. Fraud at the time of marriage presents another familiar scenario, and economic issues invariably surface at some point in the contest.
In every divorce the presence of family members, neighbors, and friends during domestic altercations brings a communal aspect to the conflict. Later, when a justice of the peace takes depositions, they become sworn witnesses to the conduct of one or both spouses. Churchyards, courthouse greens, and neighborhood taverns provide settings for the local community to exchange news and gossip about the marital conflict, to argue over the merits of a particular case or divorce in general, and to offer support for one or both spouses. Some people may also assume a legal role in vouching for the good character of the husband or wife, or when seated as a jury in the courtroom, they determine the truth or falsity of the alleged facts in a particular case. County magistrates, lawyers, and sheriffs all play important parts. Finally, the central act opens on the legislators in the capitol as they receive the plea for a divorce, sift the evidence, and render judgment. At times the discussion becomes heated and spills over into the press. Afterward, whether the application for divorce is granted or denied, the spouses, family, and community must cope with the results.
This study, therefore, contextualizes tales of marital failure and the search for divorce within the boundaries of politics, law, religion, family, and community as these elements clashed, shifted, and changed between the Revolution and the Civil War. Over these years the competition among conflicting values dominated the statewide debate. The struggle to escape the bonds of matrimony pitted individuals, couples, and sometimes families and whole communities against an ethic inherited from colonial Anglicanism and rigidly maintained within a legal system promoted at the political center. Only ever so slowly did the legislators formulate general divorce laws and allow courts to dissolve marriages.
The huge collection of petitions in the archives of the Library of Virginia provided the principal research materials. In expressing the concerns and anxieties of ordinary Americans, these texts expose a multitude of social, political, and economic issues. An important subset of the collection pertains to divorce. Over the decades from 1786 to 1851, 242 women, 218 men, and 5 couples submitted 583 divorce petitions to the Virginia assembly, some of them repeating their request as much as two or three times. Of the total number of divorce petitions, 471 (80 percent) have been located. They came from 204 women, 171 men, and 4 couples. What makes their petitions fascinating is the absorbing firsthand accounts they present, often with extraordinary detail, as they interpret their troubled marital situations to other southerners and to themselves. Cutting across boundaries of gender, race, and class, these manuscripts provide intimate perspectives on the lives of mostly white men and women from every type of background and socioeconomic condition as they confronted the multiple problems of troubled marriages and broken families. All the emotions of marriage gone sour-anger, shame, betrayal, hurt, jealousy, and rage-bleed from those pages.
In addition, every petition file includes whatever supporting materials the suppliant collected to bolster a case for divorce. The affidavits relate harrowing incidents of domestic turmoil. Accounts of adultery, cruelty, battery, fornication, and desertion specify the grounds for positive legislative action. Warmly supportive letters, often from prominent local figures, might accompany a petition. Sympathetic community members might endorse a statement of the petitioner's good reputation and the veracity of the charges to forward to Richmond. Besides these often hefty files amounting to dozens of pages, other resources abound to complete the picture. Census, tax, and property records yield evidence of wealth, age, and relationships. Legal documents such as deeds and wills explain family ties. Records of county courts and municipal jurisdictions detail brushes with the law and abusive situations. Private correspondence and even the contemporary press may further flesh out the circumstances of a particularly messy divorce. Frequently these sources expose the relative strengths and weaknesses of husband and wife in their marriage and fix their social, economic, and political status in the community. Taken together, this mass of documentation makes it possible to reconstruct the tragic married lives of these couples.
Some historians have delved into this rich source material. Nancy Cott and Lyle Koehler, for example, successfully mined the colonial Massachusetts divorce petitions. Bertram Wyatt-Brown utilized a variety of petition collections in Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. For her discussion of divorce, Brenda Stevenson studied eight petitions submitted from Loudoun County, Virginia, during the pre-Civil War era. Suzanne Lebsock found the petition collection helpful for The Free Women of Petersburg. Cynthia Kierner included a sample of divorce petitions in Southern Women in Revolution. Yet discussions of divorce in the South by these scholars as well as in books by Peter Bardaglio, Victoria Bynum, Catherine Clinton, and Stephanie McCurry reinforce the need for more systematic studies. The single book-length treatment for a southern state, Richard Chused's quantitative study of legislative divorce in Maryland, focuses on lawmakers and legislation. The best analysis of divorce in the antebellum South remains an article that Jane Turner Censer wrote two decades ago.
In the past some researchers have shied away from exploiting the petition collection out of the belief that such autobiographical documents are too subjective to be reliable. More than thirty years ago James Hugo Johnston published his 1937 doctoral dissertation, which included extensive excerpts from some of these memorials. Reviewing Johnston's book, Robert McColley warned against taking the divorce petitions "literally" and urged a "cautious skepticism." The same caution, however, applies to virtually every historical document, particularly those of a completely private nature such as letters and diaries. Newspapers are notoriously inaccurate. In the divorce files, some individuals undoubtedly lied, and every petitioner pleads a cause. Affidavits and depositions wear the bias of the witness. Unlike private papers or the press, however, the veracity of each petition is checked by the public nature of the process; the presence, quality, and number of notarized affidavits from witnesses; conflicting testimony; the real possibility of counterpetitions; the watchdogs in legislative committees; and after 1827, the jurors who passed judgment on the facts of a case. Moreover, a petition's usefulness rests as much in the attitudes, values, and beliefs it expresses as in a recital of events. Male and female petitioners drafted texts they hoped would persuade. Thus their rhetoric exposes the cultural outlook of the legislators they sought to impress.
The petition collection provides not only firsthand accounts from people's lives but an unusual opportunity to move outside the elite circles of the literate upper classes and examine the attitudes, values, and situations of middle and lower classes and even poor folk. Research is always easier when the subjects could read and write. But drawing on the assistance of friends and sympathetic neighbors to draft their requests and provide supporting affidavits, the poor submitted petitions, too, an abundance of them, and scratched their mark next to their names. Working from Superior Court records on divorce, Jane Turner Censer discovered a class bias in a southern judicial system that was more available and responsive to "ladies" than to women further down the socioeconomic ladder. Legislative divorce, when and where it was available, offered a cheaper and more egalitarian venue to the bottom 90 percent of the population.
Yet for good reason, as we will see, historians have not treated this procedure kindly. A century ago, in his magisterial three-volume study, A History of Matrimonial Institutions, George Elliott Howard decried legislative divorce as a terrible evil, a stumbling block on the road to progressive reform. In the southern states, he wrote, "it bore its most evil fruit." Later historians echo his lament and applaud the turn toward the courts and the easing of legal strictures against divorce as yet another beneficial effect of advancing modernization. The petitions reveal the legislative divorce system as people experienced it in all its harshness and inconsistency. The assembly's Journals, reports from the press, and frank criticism in private letters evidence the desire for change on the part of some members of the governing elites. But the discursive process that marked the transition to judicial divorce extended over six decades. Agents included the estranged spouses, members of their immediate families and kinship groups, friends and neighbors, local officeholders, judges, legislators, journalists, clergymen, educators, and a broadly interested public that by turns observed or joined the discussion.
Participants structured their discourses in terms of multiple concerns, but repeatedly they returned to the central point at issue: the conflict between the commitment most of Virginia's leaders felt to the indissolubility of marriage as an essential component of a Christian society and the concrete evidence of human misery and gross injustice in particular marriages. For multiple reasons divorce touched a raw nerve in southern consciousness. Breaking the marital bond between husband and wife not only assaulted a religious tradition that rejected divorce; it undermined the foundations of a close-knit, slaveholding society based on the hierarchy and solidarity of the household unit. Individuals, couples, families, kinship networks, churches, local communities, and state assemblies agonized over the subject. Indeed, the texts that prompted or reacted to the discussion of general and private divorce bills elucidate southern attitudes on a spectrum of issues. Thus divorce provides a fascinating prism through which we can examine the cultural values of Virginians and, by extension, the rest of the South before the Civil War.
Though my research is based on a single state, Virginia mirrors much of the diversity of the entire South. In population the Old Dominion ranked first in the Union in 1790 and remained first in the South throughout the antebellum era. As the largest state east of the Mississippi River before its division during the Civil War, it stretched from the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River. The vast landscape presented enormous regional variations as one moved through the Tidewater below the fall line of the rivers across the rolling Piedmont to the mountains and valleys beyond. The counties along and south of the James River contained wealthy plantations with fertile tobacco lands and large numbers of slaves, while west of the rich loam and prosperous farms of the Shenandoah Valley the hollows of the Appalachian Mountains held mainly subsistence white farmers and their families, generally hostile to slavery and resentful of the political power it gave the easterners. Across the commonwealth the majority of the population engaged in agriculture and lived on the land, but the number of urban dwellers increased steadily. During the antebellum era, older towns such as Richmond, Norfolk, and Alexandria became cities, and new commercial and mercantile centers sprang up.
Excerpted from The Great Catastrophe of My Life by Thomas E. Buckley Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
Acknowledgments Introduction. Petitions Part I. Contexts Chapter 1. A Vexata Questio: The Political Arena Chapter 2. This Holy Relation: The Religious Culture Chapter 3. Respects to Grandmother: The Communal Setting Part II. Causes Chapter 4. The Greatest Lewdness: Crossing the Color Line Chapter 5. Private Disputes in Families: The Battered Wife Chapter 6. A Monster in Female Form: The Cuckold's Lament Part III. Consequences Chapter 7. This Prejudice of Divorce: The Social Stigma Epilogue: Petitioners Appendix: Tables A.1. Total Petitions and Petitioners A.2. Divorce Petitions/Divorces Granted A.3. Petitioners' Alleged Grounds for Divorce A.4. Legislative Divorces Granted Notes Bibliography Index
What People are Saying About This
In the process of teaching us everything there is to know about divorce in antebellum Virginia, Thomas Buckley tells some remarkable stories, and he tells them well.(Jan Lewis, Rutgers University at Newark)
Buckley has written a book in which there is something for almost everyone. Those interested in gender, religion, social structures and relationships, cultural values, racial issues, and political and economic considerations during the period from the American Revolution to the Civil War will find this book helpful. . . . Buckley has certainly illustrated the trauma associated with divorce as well as provided useful data and perspectives that ought to stimulate further contemplation and understanding of southern societies.--H-South
Will have obvious appeal to specialists, complementing the studies of law, marriage and gender. . . . General readers and undergraduates will find this a useful introduction into early nineteenth-century history.--American Catholic Studies
Expose[s] southern attitudes and practices involving a spectrum of issues from marriage and family life to gender relations, interracial sex, adultery, desertion, and domestic violence.--American Catholic Studies Newsletter
This book not only delineates clearly the complex process by which Virginians sought to end their marriages legally, but it also brings our attention to a substantial body of previously ignored evidence that sheds light on the workings of southern households. . . . Offers richly detailed narratives of the intimate lives of Virginians and makes for compelling reading.--Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
This is a book that both fills an important gap in our historical knowledge and provides evocative tales of human heartbreak that still resonate.--William and Mary Quarterly
Buckley is an artful storyteller. . . . It is from well-written books such as this one that we will begin to grasp the cultural factors that made family law in the North and the South so different.--Journal of American History
A fine book, thoroughly researched and deftly written.--Catholic Historical Review
The Great Catastrophe of My Life is a superb state study that enriches enormously our understanding not only of the texture of married life and divorce among white Virginians, but also of their interactions with and influence upon state policy. . . . Buckley [has a] talent for capturing . . . legal history in local communities.--Law and History Review
A rare glimpse behind the curtain of Victorian propriety. . . . Admirable. . . . A model monograph. It ably frames and elucidates its subject [and] pushes its argument with refreshing modesty.--Journal of Social History
In the process of teaching us everything there is to know about divorce in antebellum Virginia, Thomas Buckley tells some remarkable stories, and he tells them well. Historians of the South and of family, gender, and social life will value this book for the marvelous insights it gives us into the lives of ordinary men and women, their families, and their communities.--Jan Lewis, Rutgers University at Newark