Week 7 Reading Guide: Debating Divorce

Your primary source reading for this week is an 1860 debate that started when Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, published an editorial criticizing the divorce law of the state of Indiana and Robert Dale Owen, one of its principle authors. Robert Dale Owen was a distinguished legislator, congressman, and diplomat and also an early advocate of family limitation. Owen replied to the editorial and debated the issue with Greeley in a series of letters to the paper. Greeley thought the controversy significant enough to reprint in its entiretly as an appendix to the autobiography he published in 1873.

You are also assigned selections from secondary work on nineteenth-century divorce by historians Norma Basch, Hendrik Hartog and Karen Lystra. (There are four selections, two to be read in common, a third to be chosen based on the questions that most interest you.) These are useful not only for their subject matter, but also as examples of the ways different kinds of sources can lead to different kinds of arguments.

Questions to think about:

  1. Identify the major strands of argument, for and against divorce, used in the debate between Horace Greeley and Robert Dale Owen.
  2. Pick 2 quotations, one from each side of the Greeley-Owen debate, that you think illustrates the debaters most compelling points.
  3. Which aspects of the debate seem relevant or persuasive to you today? Which seem strange or especially unpersuasive?
  4. Review Nancy Cott’s discussion of changing marriage laws in chapter 2 of Public Vows. Select a quote from the Greeley-Owen debate that you think either supports or raises questions about her arguments, and write a few sentences explaining how it connects.
  5. Why did nineteenth-century Americans get divorced?
  6. When and why did nineteenth-century Americans tell stories about marriage, and what was the significance of such stories?
  7. What changes occurred in 19c marriage laws, and why were these significant (or not)?
  8. How important were marriage laws to nineteenth-century Americans' understanding of marriage as an institution?
  9. In what ways did religion shape nineteenth-century debates about marriage?
  10. How did men and women respond to the different roles, rights and duties prescribed for husbands and wives? On what things did men and women concur, regardless of gender? What were persistent sources of tension? Were these the same for men and women?

Questions to write about (pick one):

  1. Did Robert Owen and Horace Greeley offer different views of the goals of marriage?
  2. What role did love play in nineteenth-century marriage?
  3. Was divorce a "woman's remedy"?
  4. How important were marriage laws to nineteenth-century Americans' understanding of marriage as an institution?