Robards | Jackson
Marriage in Natchez | Divorce
Official | Remini's
Difficulties of Legally Disolving a Marriage in the 1790s
Robards v. Rachel Robards
Dissolving a Marriage in the 1790s
The difficulties of legally dissolving a marriage in the 1790s were
enormous. Prior to the Revolution you could not get a divorce in
the Southern colonies, although laws were slightly more liberal
in New England. After the Revolution, a more liberated school of
thought took hold and people entertained the idea of freedom in
general, specifically dealing with social contracts that may limit
individual liberties. For example, they fought to break with the
government and Church of England, which did not allow divorce but
only granted separations.
Once the New Republic was formed states began to consider allowing
divorce. During the time period when Rachel got her divorce, the
laws were extremely vague and convoluted depending on the state.
Some states, South Carolina for example, still didn't recognize
divorce but others, chiefly in the West where Rachel lived at the
time, were more liberal. Special acts of legislation had to be passed
for permission to pursue legal divorce. (Several cases are known,
however, wherein couples voluntarily separated without benefit of
law and remarried with no legal repercussions.) Rachel and Lewis
Robards' divorce was among the first in Kentucky.
Robards against Rachel Robards
At the time Robards began pursuing a divorce, Kentucky was still
part of Virginia, and, according to the code of the Old Dominion,
if a spouse wished to obtain a divorce, he/she must procure an act
of legislation empowering him/her to bring the case before a jury.
The divorce was only authorized upon the jury's finding of a guilty
verdict. Through the good offices of his brother-in-law, John Jouett,
a member of the Virginia legislature, Robards was able to get an
act passed. Another member of the legislature later remembered that
a request for divorce was almost unheard of at that time. It was
only the second instance of such a request coming to that body,
according to Jackson historian and biographer Robert Remini.
The writ of permission from the
Virginia State Legislature was not a divorce. It simply gave permission
to sue for divorce in the court system. Virginia law at that time
required one to take several steps, including publishing
a notice to the party being sued for eight consecutive weeks
in the local newspaper of record, The Kentucky Gazette. The accused
party had a limited amount of time to respond and appeal to the
charges. If the defendant, Rachel Jackson in this case, did not
appear before the court within the prescribed window of time, the
case then went to trial before a jury.
In the case of Lewis Robards versus Rachel Robards, the jury
found the defendant, Rachel Robards guilty
of desertion and adultery.
NPT Producer Kathy Conkwright's conversation with Ann Toplovich,
Tennessee Historical Society
Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, Volume One, The Course of the
American Empire, 1767-1821 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1998) Chapter 5, "Marriage"