Families in Crisis in the Old South

Divorce, Slavery, and the Law

By Loren Schweninger

256 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 9 halftones, 9 tables, appends., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-1911-8
    Published: August 2014
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-3750-4
    Published: September 2012

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In the antebellum South, divorce was an explosive issue. As one lawmaker put it, divorce was to be viewed as a form of "madness," and as another asserted, divorce reduced communities to the "lowest ebb of degeneracy." How was it that in this climate, the number of divorces rose steadily during the antebellum era? In Families in Crisis in the Old South, Loren Schweninger uses previously unexplored records to argue that the difficulties these divorcing families faced reveal much about the reality of life in a slave-holding society as well as the myriad difficulties confronted by white southern families who chose not to divorce.

Basing his argument on almost 800 divorce cases from the southern United States, Schweninger explores the impact of divorce and separation on white families and on the enslaved and provides insights on issues including domestic violence, interracial adultery, alcoholism, insanity, and property relations. He examines how divorce and separation laws changed, how married women's property rights expanded, how definitions of inhuman treatment of wives evolved, and how these divorces challenged conventional mores.

About the Author

Loren Schweninger is Elizabeth Rosenthal Excellence Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and is coauthor, with the late John Hope Franklin, of In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South.
For more information about Loren Schweninger, visit the Author Page.


"Schweninger masterfully provides readers with an "understanding [of] divorce, alimony, slavery and the law in the Old South". . . . Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above."--Choice

"Those who wish a wider perspective on Southern divorce during the antebellum period will warmly greet Schweninger's new book. . . . The book’s rich detail and careful analysis greatly enhance our current understanding of marital breakdown in the Old South."--Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"[An] intensively researched book. . . . Schweninger describes cases in clear, concise prose and he includes helpful tables summarizing his findings."--American Historical Review

“Presents the most comprehensive examination of the legal history of [divorce], drawing from nearly eight hundred divorce cases in fifteen slave states. . . . A meaningful contribution to our understanding of the Southern family, law, and slavery.”--Journal of American History

"A well-written book that adds to what is known and is recommended for libraries and anyone with an interest in the subject area."--Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"A compelling read."--Slavery & Abolition