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The CanadianReview of American Studies, Volume 11,No. 3, Winter 1980 --To Partsof the WorldUnknown": The Circumstancesof Divorce in Connecticut, 1750-1797 Sheldon S. Cohen Andthere came unto him Pharisees, trying him, and saying, Is it lawful for a man to put a\\ayhis wife for every cause? And He answered and said, Have ye not read that he who madethem from the beginning made them male and female, and said, for this cause shall a manleave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh? So that they are no more two but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together,let no man put asunder. (Matthew 19:3-6) To the Hon Superior Court of the State of Connecticut now sitting at Windham-the Petitionof Ruth Crary-of Ashford in the County afores'd Humbly Sheweth that she was on the 21stday of April 1785 Lawfully joined in Marriage with Roger Crary of Said Ashford withwhom she lived in a Due Discharge of the Marriage Covenant on her Part untill on or aboutthe first day of May AD 1788when the said Roger Crary for reasons wholly unknown tothe Petitioner did Absent himself from the Family and Friendships of your Petitioner and hath gone to some parts of the world unknown to the Pet. leaving her wholly Destitute of Support,and he hath continued so to absent himself to the Present time and thereupon the Petitioner Prays your Honrs to Grant her a Bill of Divorce from him the said Roger Crary andthat the Petition be declared ·single and unmarried and She as in Duty bound shall Pray Datedat Ashford the 23rd day of September AD 1791 (Approved divorce petition of Ruth Crary, Windham Superior Court Records) Todaywe are quite aware of how frequently "that which God hath joined together"is torn asunder. Divorce in our society has become almost as commonas subway breakdowns. More than one million Americans, 5.1per thousandpopulation, are divorced each year. These figures are now double theannual rates for the mid-1950's, and there have been predictions of even furtherincreases in years to come. 1 Undoubtedly our increasingly permissivelifestyles have brought greater acceptance of the formerly married, thoughmany pessimistic analysts of contemporary divorce rates predict direconsequences for American society, its family structure, and even the institutionof marriage itself.2 The focus of my study, however, is not the implications of contemporary maritalseparation or its future trends. Rather, it concentrates on particular aspectsof divorce during the profound social changes that affected Americansin the second half of the eighteenth century. The specific locale for my investigationwas Connecticut, and the primary source materials were a total of839divorce petitions filed before the Superior Courts in the state's eight countiesfrom 1750through 1797.The petitioners were exceptions to the still existentmarital ideal of a dominant, provident and faithful husband wedded toa docile, frugal and obedient wife. They also represented all social levels. They ranged from Colonel Henry Beekman Livingston of the prominent 276 Sheldon S.Cohen New York family, who sought a divorce from Philadelphia's Anne Shippen for desertion, to James, a Norwich slave who sought separation fromhiswife Grace, a mulatto servant to Governor Jonathan Trumbull, also for desertion.1 Altogether these several hundred divorce petitions can offer insights into prevailing social mores in eighteenth-century New England. Analyzing them, it is possible to relate the various circumstances of marital discord to existing social customs and family life. Furthermore, the proceedings themselves also can serve as indicators of any changes in attitudes toward marriage and marital responsibilities in pre-Revolutionary and post· Revolutionary America. There were, of course, significant social developments within Connecti· cut during the second half of the eighteenth century. Connecticut moved from the status of colony to state as a result of the American Revolution. its population doubled to about one quarter of a million residents despite sizable westward migrations, and its broadening intellectual horizonswere reflected in the writings of Noah Webster and the Hartford Wits.4 Additionally , though Connecticut was essentially in a preindustrial condition, wide· spread economic developments were making its society increasingly commercially oriented and business dominated. Balancing such changes. however, the state...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 275-293
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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