On 17 February 1827 the Senate passed an act, already
approved by the House of Delegates, that transferred a portion of the responsibility for ruling on
divorce petitions from the General Assembly to the Superior Courts of Chancery. Before this
legislation, the General Assembly reviewed and decided all divorce suits in the commonwealth.
However, complaints arose from lawmakers in 1824, when their time was monopolized by
sixteen petitions. After debating the amount of power that they were willing to defer to the
courts, legislators passed Virginia's first general law concerning divorce.
Until 1827, and for many years thereafter, Virginians encountered sizable obstacles to ending a marriage.
Hostility to divorce had its roots in the Anglican prohibition, which persisted after the Revolution, and
divorce remained an anomaly in the Old Dominion. Members of the General Assembly tried to maintain
this strict control over the dissolution of marriages. Between 1786, the year of the first divorce petition,
and 1827, the year of the first divorce act, the legislature approved only 42 divorces out of a total of
268 petitions. It was able to keep divorce numbers low by applying harsh restrictions on the grounds
couples could cite to end their unions. The 1827 act gave courts the right to provide absolute divorces
when individuals proved "natural or incurable impotency of body at the time of entering into the
matrimonial contract; idiocy, bigamy." However, they could only grant legal separations, denying
either party the right to remarry, in cases of "adultery, cruelty, and just cause of bodily fear." People
often submitted petitions multiple times before being granted a divorce, if they received one at all.
Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, people began entering into marriage more for love than for convenience.
Therefore, the notion that remaining in an unhappy union was a societal duty garnered less support. Individuals
introduced more divorce requests to the legislature and courts, as restrictions gradually loosened. With the
passage of the 1851 Virginia Constitution, legislative divorces became a thing of the past, with the courts
gaining all jurisdiction over petitions.
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