Framing American Divorce: From the Revolutionary Generation to the Victorians

A book review of Norma Basch’s Framing American Divorce: From the Revolutionary Generation to the Victorians.

Norma Basch. Framing American Divorce: From the Revolutionary Generation to the Victorians.Berkeley:University ofCalifornia Press, 1999.

 In Framing American Divorce Norma Basch combines a chronological legal history that traces “the interplay between legal changes and public responses”[1], along with a cultural history to explain the evolutionary process that took place in the development of divorce in America. Basch follows a chronological time period from post Revolutionary America, to the second half of the 19th century.

 

 Basch’s Framing American Divorce arranges her historiography by dividing the book into three useful sections. The first section of the book “Rules” is a chronological history of divorce as it developed in America. This section of the book provides the real basis of the book from a legal evolutionary standpoint. The book begins by providing some interesting background on early pre-revolutionary American divorce explaining how the English rules toward divorce diverged dramatically with those of the British colonies.  Independence that resulted from revolution signaled more than departure from English rule, this same revolutionary independence lent itself to new divorce laws that placed America “light years beyond its English equivalent”[2]. Basch also provides some excellent insight into how post-revolution America combined the liberal Puritan model, the English parliamentary model, with Protestant social values to shape divorce laws that would become the basis for future litigation. Although Basch provides much detail in her writing on early post-revolution America, concerning the legal history in the first section titled “Rules” there was very little historical chronology mention of the Civil War period. It would seem logical to assume that this particular period should have yielded much more fertile ground on American divorce than what has been depicted here in Basch’s writing.

 

 In the second section titled “Mediations”, Basch utilizes court records from the states of New York and Indiana to compare the contrasting divorce laws that existed between these jurisdictions and to focus on urban versus rural property mediations. This section also focuses on the different reasons men and women entered into divorce. The results of Basch’s analysis reveal that the majority of women who divorced filed for divorce due to abandonment and did so to regain their unmarried status, while men on the other hand entered into divorce as a result of perceived loss of marital authority. In this section Basch provides some insightful analysis.

 

 In the last section titled “Representations” Basch explores the way divorce was presented to the public by way of popular trial pamphlets and magazines. These writings essentially represented the supermarket tabloid of today and presented women for the most part in the role of victim. This section also provides for a very insightful glimpse of society through the popular writings that the public engaged in reading.

 

 Basch’s Framing American Divorce takes a calculating look at the history of divorce in America beginning in the post-revolutionary period up until the late 19th century. She makes some very astute observations concerning the roles women and men occupied within society and why they entered into divorce. As mentioned earlier however is the shortcoming of equal devotion to the Civil War which would seem to be fertile ground for this topic. This seems especially evident since Basch makes such abundant use of the post-revolutionary period in her research.  One other area that could have also used more coverage would have been greater examination of other races, and socio-economic groups. Overall though the books presentation of material in its three sectional format and its very insightful analysis into a topic of history that receives very little attention was quite well done.


[1] Norma Basch “Framing American Divorce” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 15

[2] Ibid, 24

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