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Marriage and Revolution

Tuesday, May 5, 2015 11:25
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Here’s a brief little history lesson on divorce in the United States and France from Andrew Cherlin’s The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today:

“It’s true that divorce was difficult to obtain, seen as shameful, and never granted merely because the spouses wanted to end their marriage. Nevertheless, the seed of divorce was planted in the northern colonies. Connecticut had the most liberal laws of any colony or state in the 1700s, and divorce petitions appeared to increase in the aftermath of the Revolution. Even though the numbers were tiny by modern standards – perhaps fifteen to twenty divorces per year in the second half of the eighteenth century – the rise caused concern among prominent clergy and academics. The middle colonies were more restrictive, while the southern colonies that followed Anglican law did not allow divorce until after the Revolution.

No colony or state, however, went as far as the French National Assembly in 1792, three years after the start of the French Revolution. It passed a law, influenced by the individualistic spirit of the revolution, allowing divorce by mutual consent or at the request of only one spouse on the grounds of incompatibility of temperament and on specific grounds including cruelty and ill treatment and desertion for at least two years. This breathtaking statue introduced principles that would not be seen in Western divorce law for nearly two hundred years. It set off a wave of divorce and a round of opposition from conservatives, especially to the ground of incompatibility. After Napoleon seized power, the law was significantly restricted and the ground of incompatibility was dropped. (Napoleon retained other grounds and divorced Josephine in 1809.) In 1816, after the fall of Napoleon, King Louis XVIII abolished divorce altogether, returning France to the Catholic position. Over the next half century, several attempts to legalize divorce were unsuccessful. Opponents had merely to refer to the excesses of the revolutionary period to beat back divorce legislation. Only in 1884 did France finally legalize divorce.”


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