In Marital Cruelty in Antebellum America, Robin C. Sager
probes the struggles ofaggrieved 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.