Divorce in Nineteenth Century Washington County, District of Columbia
When the nation's capital was established in the District of Columbia, Congress had to decide what law to apply there. The Act of February 27, 1801 divided D.C. into Washington County and Alexandria County, in which Maryland and Virginia law respectively applied. One Circuit Court presided over both counties. In the early 1800s, residents petitioned to Congress for legislative divorces, but these applications were widely unsuccessful. Washington Co. residents obtained divorces under Maryland law.
No divorces were granted in Maryland until an act of the state legislature authorized legislative divorce. The act arose in the Sewell case, in which John Sewell petitioned for a divorce because his wife, Eve, had been convicted in Talbot County Court of adultery. Upon proof of the conviction, the legislature annulled the marriage.
Equity courts handled suits for alimony. These were mostly filed by wives, on grounds of desertion, cruelty, adultery, drunkenness, and nonsupport, in order of descending frequency. The suits were often withdrawn, suggesting reconciliation between spouses. While some petitions were filed by women who could support themselves, other plaintiffs had to petition for temporary relief. Two defenses to divorce were available: unclean hands, in which the applicant had committed a wrongful act and was therefore barred from obtaining relief, and connivance, in which the applicant had tacitly consented to the defendant's wrongful act. If the defendant did not appear, the petitioner had to prove her claim; there was no default. Decrees sometimes granted petitioners incidental relief such as child custody and property ownership.
In 1842, the Maryland legislature granted equity courts jurisdiction to hear divorce applications. Absolute divorces could be granted on grounds of impotence, adultery, and abandonment for five years (amended to three in 1845). Another ground was added in 1847, granting divorces if "the woman before marriage has been guilty of illicit carnal intercourse with another man," reflecting the societal view of women as moral arbiters. Divorces from bed and board, under which the couple was still legally married, were granted for cruelty or desertion. Most petitions were for divorce from bed and board, perhaps because cruelty and desertion were the most common complaints.
Congress authorized divorces in D.C. in 1860. Petitioners could obtain absolute divorce on grounds of bigamy, lunacy, impotence, and adultery, and divorces from bed and board on grounds of cruelty, apprehension of bodily harm, or desertion for three years. This law was narrower than Maryland's or Virginia's out of fear that relaxation of the marriage bond would result in a decline in morals. The law was amended in 1870 to allow absolute divorce for cruelty, drunkenness, and desertion for two years. The law was relaxed to follow other states, so that people would not travel to another state to get a divorce, and to emancipate women from cruel marriages. The divorce rate increased after the Civil War, partly due to women's increased independence during the war: women sought divorce in reaction to domestic oppression, and men sought divorce when their wives would not obey them. When Congress codified D.C. law in 1901 it tightened the divorce laws again, allowing absolute divorce only for adultery and divorce from bed and board only for drunkenness, cruelty and desertion. The rules were loosened again in 1935.
Divorce rates in D.C. rose despite efforts to make divorce laws stricter, showing that the law responded to the social need for divorce. The evolution of divorce laws in D.C. also shows progress toward a single moral standard for men and women.
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