- Marital Cruelty in Antebellum America by Robin C. Sager
In a study utilizing over 1,500 divorce cases from three states, Robin Sager investigates the contours of marital cruelty in the antebellum United States. Believing that the era saw “marital discord” as a taboo subject” (10), she argues that divorce cases can provide the fullest discussion of the subject. Focusing on divorce testimony as “cultural texts,” she explores what they reveal about companionate marriage, gender roles, and the community interactions. The book pairs Virginia, which she calls the “quintessential southern state,” with the newly settled states of Texas and Wisconsin, in part to examine the impact of honor culture and frontier conditions on aspects of cruelty. Given this focus, Sager arranges her chapters topically, exploring kinds of cruelties practiced by men and women and the reaction they invoked from their communities. Arguing that wives could also be cruel, the author explores the gendered dimensions of verbal and physical cruelty – women turned household objects into weapons while men used their bodies and more traditional weaponry. While social conventions dictated that women be pleasant and cooperative, men in turn faced strictures about curbing their tempers. Women who complained about sexual difficulties pointed to husbands who made excessive demands, while the husbands alleged infidelities, inadequacy, or coldness.
Sager cautions those who, influenced by the idealistic writings of the ante-bellum period, believe that companionate marriage, with its emphasis on affection and mutuality, had won the day. Instead, she believes that men and women alike pointed to duty as the linchpin of a normal marriage. Behaviors such as alcoholism undercut an ability to fulfill the person’s marital obligations and thus caused irretrievable marital breakdown. Moreover, she finds greater cruelty in the frontier states of Texas and Wisconsin, where she believes that changing gender roles led husbands and wives to resort to violence to force a spouse to conform to expectations, often more traditional ones.
Sager writes well, and her prodigious researches reveal many fascinating views of battling couples and their relatives and neighbors grappling with how much to intervene into the scenes of domestic violence playing out in front of [End Page 182] them. Yet fascinating as the story is that Sager tells, the use of divorce cases to plumb troubled marriages does run into significant difficulties. The adversarial nature of nineteenth-century divorce meant that couples seeking divorce found themselves forced by the system to argue that their marriage was irretrievably broken and one party was solely responsible for that situation. Such rules of the game heightened the need for exaggerating discord. Even though Sager admits that parties “framed” their divorce, she still sees the depositions as accurate descriptions of social interactions.
Moreover, Sager seems to expect that the grounds alleged in the divorce suits actually were the causes of marital breakdown. Because states varied in the grounds they allowed as justifying divorce, it may well have been that unhappy couples tailored their divorce suits to the causes allowed. Virginia did not allow mental cruelty as a cause; thus, the chapter on verbal abuse does not include any Virginia examples.
In the end, Sager avers that historians know far more about people trying to achieve the perfect marriage than about those who “were simply trying not to kill one another” (12). Yet the stories of the profoundly unhappy, while showing the outer edges of cruelty that came to seem unsupportable, may give us fewer insights into mundane marital cruelties that the married couple believed either had to be endured or had no solution.