In Marital Cruelty in Antebellum America, Robin C. Sager probes the struggles of aggrieved spouses shedding light on the nature of marriage and violence in the United States in the decades prior to the Civil War. Analyzing over 1,500 divorce records that reveal intimate details of marriages in conflict in Virginia, Texas, and Wisconsin from 1840–1860, Sager offers a rare glimpse into the private lives of ordinary Americans shaken by accusations of cruelty.
At a time when the standard for an ideal marriage held that both partners adequately perform their respective duties, hostility often arose from ongoing domestic struggles for power. Despite a rise in the then novel expectation of marriage as a companionate relationship, and even in the face of liberalized divorce grounds, marital conflicts often focused on violations of duty, not lack of love. Sager describes how, in this environment, cruelty was understood as a failure to fulfill expectations and as a weapon to brutally enforce more traditional interpretations of marital duty.
Sager’s findings also challenge historical literature’s assumptions about the regional influences on violence, showing that married southerners were no more or less violent than their midwestern counterparts. Her work reveals how definitions and perceptions of cruelty varied according to the gender of victim and perpetrator. Correcting historical mischaracterizations of women’s violence as trivial, rare, or defensive, Sager finds antebellum wives both capable and willing to commit a wide variety of cruelties within their marriages. Her research provides details about the reality of nineteenth-century conjugal unions, including the deep unhappiness buried within them.
1. “As Much Pain as Blows and Kicks”: The Verbal Cruelties of Husbands and Wives
2. “A Kind of Hell upon Earth”: The Physical Cruelties of Husbands and Wives
3. “Every Twenty-Four Hours and Almost Every Day”: Sexual Mistreatment
4. “The Poison That Maddened His Brain”: Drunkenness and Neglect
5. “I Did Not Come to Quarrel”: Community Responses to Perceived Abuses
Robin C. Sager is assistant professor of history at the University of Evansville.
Praise for Marital Cruelty in Antebellum America
“Marital Cruelty in Antebellum America makes a considerable contribution to the scholarship on marriage, divorce, and domestic violence in nineteenth-century America. Most importantly, Sager’s emphasis on the fact that women were also perpetrators of domestic violence and cruelty gets us one step closer to what life was really like in Antebellum America.”—Civil War Book Review