First divorces in America date back to colonial times

Divorce in the United States has only become common practice within the last half-century. Before then, it was not impossible to dissolve a marriage, but it was certainly more difficult. Divorce also came with a social stigma strong enough to keep many unhappy couples from pursuing it.

Nonetheless, divorce in America has been around longer than the country itself. In fact, an article recently published in Smithsonian Magazine notes that the second divorce ever granted in the “New World” happened this week in 1643. For those doing the math, that was 372 years ago.

According to historical records, Denis and Anne Clarke were granted a divorce because Denis had allegedly engaged in bigamy. He reportedly abandoned Anne (with whom he had two children) to go live with another woman. He also had two children with the second woman.

It is interesting to note that many of the first New England settlers believed that marriage was a social contract as opposed to a religious one. There was still a stigma that accompanied divorce, but it was deemed more acceptable at this time than when marriage came to be viewed as a religious commitment.

Couples in every state can now get divorced without citing fault, but no-fault divorce did not appear until the 20th century. That’s why many historical divorce documents contain allegations of infidelity, bigamy, spousal abandonment and other behaviors deemed “acceptable” grounds for divorce.

There are many reasons to be thankful that we live in modern times, and current divorce practices are on that list.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine, “The Second Divorce in Colonial America Happened Today in 1643,” Laura Clark, Jan. 5, 2015

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