Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 110 / Number 4 - Review
The Great Catastrophe of My Life: Divorce in the Old Dominion.
By Thomas E. Buckley, S.J. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. xiv, 346 pp. $19.95 paper; $59.95 cloth.
In the last forty years, much has been written about patriarchal order and domestic life in the Old South. Thomas Buckley
makes a unique contribution to that literature in this study of divorce in Virginia from the close of the Revolution to the eve of the
Civil War. This book not only delineates clearly the complex process by which Virginians sought to end their marriages
legally, but it also brings our attention to a substantial body of previously ignored evidence that sheds light on the workings of
southern households and the way marriages operated in the wider networks of family and community.
This is, fundamentally, a study of the exceptions that prove the rules—divorce was extremely uncommon in the Old
Dominion. Before the War for Independence, Buckley explains, it was impossible to receive a full legal divorce in the colony.
Starting in 1786, spouses could seek divorce by petitioning for a special act of the state legislature. Petitioning for a legislative
divorce was a very public and rather desperate alternative for irreconcilable couples, as Virginia lawmakers were disinclined
to grant such petitions.
Lawmakers remained the primary arbiters of failed marriages until 1851, when the courts fully took over
that responsibility. Although we might be tempted to read this change as a "liberalizing" move, Buckley suggests the
opposite. He shows that legislators even in the 1840s shared with clergymen and the increasingly evangelically oriented
public a persistent belief that the marital bond should be indissoluble. However, overworked legislators were
finding it increasingly difficult to hold the line against an onslaught of petitions and gradually came to look upon the transfer of
divorce proceedings to the courts as a way to shore up the institution of marriage.
Buckley's work is based primarily upon
471 divorce petitions and accompanying materials on file at the Library of Virginia. His analysis of these documents reveals
more than it is possible to recount in such a brief review, but a few of his findings are particularly worthy of note. Buckley
demonstrates that legislators were not typically persuaded to grant divorces when the behavior of a spouse was in question.
Petitioners were more likely to receive legislative remedy if they could prove that their marriages had been invalid from the
first—such as in cases of bigamy, impotence, or fraud. Under certain circumstances, however, lawmakers were influenced
by harrowing accounts of post-nuptial disaster, exposing an interesting pattern of priorities. In particular, men stood some
chance of being granted divorces if they could prove that their wives had committed adultery across the color line. Buckley
suggests that maintaining the racial hierarchy and preserving white male honor were principles so highly prized that the integrity of
the household itself could be violated to uphold them. Women with similar complaints rarely succeeded in their petitions,
reinforcing the idea that a double standard was at work. Women, on the other hand, were somewhat more successful at petitioning
for divorce if they could prove spousal abuse, suggesting the limits of white male prerogative.
Buckley shows that divorce petitions and
accompanying materials can be used to chart a complex web of relationships that bound spouses to kin and community.
Marriage was not a private institution, in the modern sense. Families, friends, and associates were both influenced by marriages
gone wrong and sought to exert influence over unions in trouble.
This book offers richly detailed narratives of the intimate lives of Virginians and makes for compelling reading. Standing
upon the substantial foundation that Buckley has laid, other researchers will undoubtedly want to probe his sources further.
Legal historians might connect this story more fully to its English antecedents and to divorce practices in other states to
highlight both the American and the southern aspects of legislative divorce. Social historians should follow Buckley's lead and
employ divorce petitions and depositions more systematically to explore household relations in the Old Dominion. There can be
no doubt, however, that the "great catastrophe" of marriages gone wrong now serves as a great boon to historians trying to get
the story of the Old Dominion right.
Jewel L. Spangler
University of Calgary