- Families in Crisis in the Old South: Divorce, Slavery and the Law by Loren Schweninger
In Families in Crisis in the Old South: Divorce, Slavery and the Law, Loren Schweninger challenges the long-held notion that divorces were both rare and difficult to obtain for southerners during the antebellum period. Using evidence from 768 divorce, separation and alimony cases filed between 1786 and 1867 from across all fifteen slave states and Washington DC, Schweninger clearly demonstrates that divorce, especially among slave owners, was a much more common occurrence in the South than previously thought. White women from slave-owning families prosecuted suits in greater numbers than any other group, filing 91% of the 610 cases brought by white women. The number of cases filed by white men was much lower at 123 and free persons of color brought suit in 35 instances. These cases represent only a portion of the total number of divorce cases filed in both state assemblies and chancery courts in the antebellum period, which Schweninger believes to be in the thousands.
Schweninger uses these 768 cases to examine many facets of southern life, from how laws related to divorce across the South changed over time to how divorce or separations, in many cases, allowed married women to exercise greater control over property. He divided his analysis into six chapters, each framed by a divorce or separation case that illustrates Schweninger’s main theme for the chapter. For example, to begin his [End Page 203] chapter “Insanity, Alcoholism, Abandonment, and Abuse,” Schweninger tells the story of Isaac and Lydia Rawdon. Mr. Rawdon, an Alabama planter, suffered from a variety of mental disorders which led him to slit the throat of his simple-minded son in the yard of their home as Lydia watched from the breakfast room. Lydia, with help from Isaac’s brother, had Isaac committed to the Georgia state mental institution in Milledgeville. She then filed for divorce, requesting that the Rawdon’s property be divided between herself and Isaac (his being placed under the control of a guardian). The chapter that follows documents the extraordinary culture of violence that existed in the antebellum South, a culture that was magnified by high rates of alcoholism and mental instability. Two-thirds of cases filed by women cite domestic abuse as a primary factor. Women stated that “their husbands struck, hit, punched and assaulted them” (48). Other husbands went even further, whipping their wives until they were close to death, choking them, and cutting them with knives. Schweninger also documents the shift to new definitions of abuse in antebellum courts, calling attention to how women began challenging husbands who “harassed them with foul and unseemly language, questioned their moral character, and accused them of the grossest types of misconduct” (55). Such suits led to “new statutes designed to meet the needs of those who found themselves in unsustainable marriages” that were not necessarily physically violent (33-34). Judges and juries tended to side with women who suffered under such circumstances, as they did with Lydia Rawdon, whose request for a divorce was granted.
Schweninger’s work also furthers the current understanding of the gendered and racial facets of infidelity in the antebellum South. While men filing for divorce cited infidelity as their primary reason for seeking a divorce in 75% of cases, surprisingly women charged their husbands with infidelity much less frequently, citing infidelity in only 38% of cases. In over half of these cases, women accused their husbands of committing adultery with a white woman. Of the 233 women who cited infidelity, only 54 accused their husbands of having relations with their own slaves. Men of the non-slave holding classes were more likely to accuse their wives of infidelity. Three quarters of the cases filed by men revolved around their wives having sexual relations with a black man. Schweninger explains this situation was particularly devastating “to a white southern husband’s notion of manhood and...