Deja Vu - marriage in early US history - 2/04
Smart Marriages ®
cmfce at smartmarriages.com
Fri Feb 27 19:20:39 EST 2004
subject: Deja Vu - marriage in early US history - 2/04
from: Smart Marriages®
Wall Street Journal
February 25, 2004
By CYNTHIA CROSSEN
Couples in the U.S. Used to Marry Early, Often and Informally
In a Connecticut village in the 17th century, an unmarried couple moved in
together. One day, while out for a stroll, they ran into the local
"John Rogers," the magistrate said, "do you persist in calling this woman
"Yes, I do."
"And Mary, do you really wish this old man to be your husband?"
"Indeed I do."
"Then by the laws of God and this commonwealth, I pronounce you man and
Although probably apocryphal, this story reflects the state of marriage in
early America: no license, witness, ceremony, often not even a magistrate.
Some couples wanted a blessing from church or state, but common-law
marriages, men and women behaving as spouses without a formal contract,
were both legal and respectable. An 1843 Indiana marriage law stated, "No
particular form of ceremony shall be necessary, except that the parties
shall declare ... that they take each other as husband and wife."
Early American settlers adapted traditions imported from England to life on
the wide-open plains. A man and woman may have committed themselves to
lifelong devotion months, even years, before a circuit judge or preacher
happened along. Many couples didn't wait. In the early Chesapeake region,
roughly a third of brides were pregnant.
Females were marriageable at the age of 12, males at 15. But in Hempstead
Harbor, N.Y., in 1838, Edward Tappan, 15 years old, married Harriet Allen,
who had just celebrated her 11th birthday. In Green Hollow, Maine, in 1828,
a Mr. Williams, age 87, wed Polly Candle, 14.
After marrying, most couples had a powerful incentive to sustain their
connubial enterprise: The labor of both was crucial to their survival.
Further cementing the bond, by law a wife's personal property belonged to
her husband; if she left him, she took nothing. Even so, some early
settlers, both women and men, sought divorces. But death, not strife, ended
most marriages. In the 17th century, one of the spouses, usually the woman,
was likely to be dead in seven years.
By the 19th century, state legislators were realizing that people who
married themselves could -- and would -- also divorce themselves, leaving a
trail of destitution. Lawmakers passed a hodgepodge of bills setting the
terms of the marriage contract. In most states, common-law marriage was
gradually abolished. Before Americans could marry, they had to ask the
Thirty states prohibited people with physical or mental disabilities --
epileptics or the "feeble-minded, idiotic, imbecilic or insane" -- from
marrying. (In many states, women over 45 were exempted from this rule.)
Four states disqualified paupers or inmates in public institutions for the
indigent. Washington and North Dakota didn't issue marriage licenses to
people suffering from advanced tuberculosis.
Most states banned interracial marriage; white citizens of Florida could
not marry anyone of "one-eighth or more Negro blood." California's white
residents couldn't legally marry "a Negro, mulatto, Mongolian or member of
the Malay race." Nevada's racial restrictions were all-inclusive -- a white
man or woman could not marry "a person of the black, brown, yellow or red
races." In Mississippi, the penalty for interracial marriage was life in
Slaves could not legally marry. How, legislators argued, could property
itself enter into a contract? Nonetheless, slaves got married, "till death
or distance do you part," as their preachers sometimes said. Mormon
polygamy, deemed "inhumane," was finally banned by the Supreme Court in
If marriage law became a thicket of red tape, divorce was a jungle. In
South Carolina, divorce was prohibited for any reason. But in most states,
a man or woman could petition the legislature for divorce -- a long,
expensive and often futile exercise. Grounds for divorce were narrow and
literal: adultery, drunkenness, desertion. Some states didn't allow the
divorced, especially the "guilty" ones, to remarry while their former
spouses were alive.
State divorce laws were so different -- and so often contested -- that an
exasperated U.S. Supreme Court justice wrote, "If there is one thing the
people are entitled to expect from their lawmakers, it's rules that will
enable them to tell whether they are married, and if so, to whom."
Not surprisingly, couples often fled to states with the most lenient
divorce rules. In the 19th century, Indiana was a favorite. Since then,
except for a few brief periods in the 20th century, America's divorce rate
has steadily marched upward. In 1880, one in 21 marriages ended in divorce;
by 1916, one of every nine couples divorced.
Today, a state's marriage law contains dozens of technicalities defining
who may and may not marry. In Arizona, for example, first cousins can't
marry unless both are at least 65 years old. If one is under 65, however,
they may marry "upon approval of any superior court judge in the state if
proof has been presented to the judge that one of the cousins is unable to
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