Question: Was it normal not to obtain a formal civil divorce in 19th century America?

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Question: Was it normal not to obtain a formal civil divorce in 19th century America?

To remarry without a formal divorce was not an unusual thing in pre-Civil War America

Some critics of Mormonism like to emphasize that some LDS members did not receive civil divorces before remarrying—either monogamously or polygamously. They either state or imply that this shows the Saints' cavalier attitude toward the law.

The Saints were often poor and spent most of their time on the frontier, where the legal apparatus of the state was particularly feeble. Women who had joined the church and traveled to Zion without their husbands were particularly likely to be poor, and also unlikely to be worried about property rights. Critics usually tell us nothing of all this—with the result that some credulous readers might be horrified by the “loose” marriage practices of the Saints. It also should be remembered that because Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other Latter-day Saint leaders exercised exclusive jurisdiction over celestial or plural marriages, marriages conducted under their supervision had as much (or more) formal oversight as many traditional marriages in America during the first half of the nineteenth century.

“From the standpoint of the legal historian,” wrote one expert who is not a Latter-day Saint, “it is perhaps surprising that anyone prosecuted bigamy at all. Given the confusion over conflicting state laws on marriage, there were many ways to escape notice, if not conviction.” [1]

Bigamy or, rather, serial monogamy (without divorce or death) was a common social experience in early America. Much of the time, serial monogamists were poor and transient people, for whom the property rights that came with a recognized marriage would not have been much of a concern, people whose lives only rarely intersected with the law of marriage. [2]

Nor, not incidentally, were their husbands available for a formal divorce.

Marriage in 19th century America was not a "free-for-all"

Does this mean that marriage in America was a free-for-all? Hardly, notes Nancy Cott:

When couples married informally, or reversed the order of divorce and remarriage, they were not simply acting privately, taking the law into their own hands. . . . A couple about to join or leave an intimate relationship looked for communal sanction. The surrounding local community provided the public oversight necessary. Without resort to the state apparatus, local informal policing by the community affirmed that marriage was a well-defined public institution as well as a contract made by consent. Carrying out the standard obligations of the marriage bargain—cohabitation, husband’s support, wife’s service—seems to have been much more central to the approbation of local communities at this time than how or when the marriage took place, and whether one of the partners had been married elsewhere before. [3]

Notes

  1. Beverly J. Schwartzberg, “Grass Widows, Barbarians, and Bigamists: Fluid Marriage in Late Nineteenth-Century America” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Santa Barbara, 2001), 51–52.
  2. Hendrik Harlog, Man & Wife in America: A History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 87
  3. Nancy F. Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 37.