On December 20, 1878, the South Carolina legislature repealed the state’s short-lived divorce law, intentionally granting South Carolina the unique status of being the only state in the nation to prohibit divorce. For the next seventy-one years South Carolina stood alone and consistently refused to grant divorces to its citizens. While other states had been legalizing divorce since the early nineteenth century, South Carolina steadfastly refused, disapproving of government interference in any “domestic institution.”
For a brief period before this hardcore stance was resumed, Reconstruction legislators had enacted the state’s first divorce law in 1872. Defending divorce as biblically justified and practically necessary to remedy problems that inevitably arose in the course of human relationships, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a law that allowed divorce on two grounds only, adultery and desertion. From 1872 to 1878 the courts granted 157 divorces. When white Democrats regained control of state government, they diligently attacked much legislation enacted by the Republicans, including the divorce law. Arguing that the law violated the sanctity of family and marriage, Democrats repealed the law in 1878. For the next fifteen years a bill advocating some form of divorce appeared before at least one house of the General Assembly almost every year and failed. At the constitutional convention of 1895 the perennial divorce debate surfaced. Delegate Daniel Henderson argued that the state’s relentless stand against divorce offered incentives to those who destroyed homes and winked at the “crime of adultery.” Opponents prevailed, however, strengthening their position with a clause in the 1895 constitution that prohibited divorce. One journalist’s comment expressed the sentiments of many: “As our State stands today in a distinguished minority of right, her position is an honorable one and should never be changed.” Similar prideful assertions accompanied every defense of South Carolina’s extreme position against divorce for the next half-century.
Although divorce was forbidden, South Carolinians were not exempt from desertions, bigamy, abusive marriages, adulterous relationships, and illegitimate children. In fact, desertion functioned as a de facto divorce in South Carolina. Defiantly opposing divorce did not restore the state to its antebellum stature, increase personal incomes, or educate its populace, but it could foster self-respect for a state that trailed the nation in most indicators of well-being. Moreover, white South Carolinians, still bitter over Reconstruction, could point to South Carolina’s only departure from its historic stance and equate it with an era they despised. While it was only a legal mirage that South Carolina marriages never deteriorated because the state provided no legal mechanism for their dissolution, it was an illusion that mattered to many. With pressure from a changing world in the World War II era, South Carolina amended the state constitution in 1949 and the legislature passed a law allowing divorce on four grounds: adultery, desertion, physical cruelty, and habitual drunkenness.
Hudson, Janet. “From Constitution to Constitution, 1868–1895: South Carolina’s Unique Stance on Divorce.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 98 (January 1997): 75–96.