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Breaking the Bonds

Marital Discord in Pennsylvania, 1730-1830

Merril Smith

Publication Year: 1992

"In Breaking The Bonds, Merril Smith establishes the ambitious goal of determining 'what kind of problems arose in troubled marriages' and of analyzing 'how men and women coped with marital discord.' . . . To accomplish this, Smith studied hundreds of divorce petitions, other legal documents, newspapers, almshouse dockets, and prescriptive literature. She concludes that, as in the present day, married couples fought and parted over sex, money, and abuse."
Pennsylvania History

"A richly textured study. . . With an eye to cross-class and cross-race representation, Smith utilizes diverse sources, including memoirs and diaries, correspondence, probate records, newspaper advertisements, depositions and petitions for divorce, and various moral reform and social regulatory organization records. . . . A brave attempt to write a description of 'the development of the Puritan concept of spirtiual growth.' . . . Gracefully written. . . provides specific new insights into a too-neglected area of early republican domestic politics."
William and Mary Quarterly

The late eighteenth century marked a period of changing expectations about marriage: companionship came to coexist as a norm alongside older patriarchal standards, men and women began to see their roles in more disparate ways, expectations about the satisfaction of marriage grew, and gender distinctions between husbands and wives became more complicated. Marital strife was an inevitable outcome of these changing expectations. The difficulties that rose, including abuse, a lack of sexual communication, and domestic violence (frequently brought on by alcholism) differ little from those with which couples struggle today.

Breaking The Bonds is an imaginative and original account that brings to light a strongly communicative world in which neighbors knew of, dinscussed, and even came to the aid of those locked in unhappy marriages.

Published by: NYU Press


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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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p. ix

Illustrations and Tables

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xiv

During the writing and revising of this book, I have incurred innumerable debts. The first version of this work was my doctoral dissertation. The members of my committee at Temple University, Allen F. Davis, P. M. G. Harris...

List of Abbreviations

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p. xv

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Introduction: The "Open Question" of Marriage

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pp. 1-9

Nearly all adults in early America expected to marry at some point in their lives.1 Husbands and wives fought and quarreled, loved and hated, and in many ways behaved much as they do today. What marriage— and the roles of husband...

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1. Dissolving Matrimonial Bonds: Divorce in the New Rep

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pp. 10-43

In a divorce petition dated September 8, 1794, Elizabeth Sutter of Philadelphia charged her husband, James, with cruelty. She and James had been married for about twenty years, and, as Elizabeth related in her petition, he had treated her in an "affectionate manner" for most...

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2. Weaving the Bonds: Husbands' and Wives' Expectations of Marriage

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pp. 44-75

"Even you My Brother . . . could not desire for a Husband one more perfectly formed to make me truly happy," declared Harriet Chew Carroll in an 1801 letter to her brother, Benjamin Chew, Jr.2 These words, written shortly after...

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3. "If We Forsook Prudence": Sexuality in Troubled Marriages

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pp. 76-102

In December 1805, a distraught Jacob Collady confessed that he was unable to consummate his marriage "by having carnal knowledge . . . and performing the duty of a man towards his wife."2 Jacob's shamed admission revealed his...

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4. "Cruel and Barbarous Treatment": The Forms and Meaning of Spouse Abuse

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pp. 103-138

In the ideal marriage in the new republic there was no place for spouse abuse. Joined in an affectionate union, the married couples of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature discussed their differences. Husbands explained their arguments...

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5. Runaways: "Wilful and Malicious Desertion"

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pp. 139-155

When Hugh Smith placed an advertisement in the 1754 Pennsylvania Gazette noting that his wife, Ann, had "elop'd from him," he declared that she lived "in a very disorderly manner." In a 1785 notice, John Hall stated that his...

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6. For a Maintenance: The Economics of Marital Discord

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pp. 156-178

Divorce did not always settle tensions between married couples. In fact, sometimes it caused new stresses or increased old ones. Martha Tiffin, for instance, received a divorce from bed and board from her husband, James, in December...

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Conclusion: Unraveling the Bonds

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pp. 179-183

If marriage can be compared to a woven fabric, then this work is a study of how that cloth was woven in eighteenth- and early nineteenth- century Pennsylvania and what conditions made it unravel. This examination of marital discord...


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pp. 185-211

Select Bibliography

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pp. 213-219


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pp. 221-225

E-ISBN-13: 9780814788950
E-ISBN-10: 0814788955
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814779347
Print-ISBN-10: 0814779344

Page Count: 241
Publication Year: 1992

OCLC Number: 44962713
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Breaking the Bonds

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Divorce -- Pennsylvania -- History -- 18th century.
  • Divorce -- Pennsylvania -- History -- 19th century.
  • Marriage -- Pennsylvania -- History -- 18th century.
  • Marriage -- Pennsylvania -- History -- 19th century.
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