The Puritans, the Pilgrims, and America’s Slow About-Face on Domestic Violence


by Carl M. Cannon

Thirty-five years ago, U.S. Surgeon General Julius B. Richmond, embracing an expansive definition of public health, issued an annual report on everything from improving childhood nutrition to the specter of domestic violence.

“We are killing ourselves by our own careless habits,” Richmond’s boss, Joseph A. Califano, wrote in the introduction, in which he called for “a second health revolution.”

In that ambitious 1979 document, “Healthy People: The Surgeon General’s Report on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention,” Americans were urged to fasten their seat belts, drive more slowly, and lower their intake of fat, salt, and sugar. We were also told to wear motorcycle helmets, drink less, exercise more—and quit smoking altogether.

One of Califano’s bad “habits”— violence inside the home—wasn’t a victimless crime, however. Dr. Richmond certainly understood this. Most murders and assaults, he noted in a subsequent interview, occur “among friends and family,” often at home. But breaking that cycle would take a lot more than a government document.

Domestic violence, as it happens, was not a new concern. Long before the United States was founded, the Puritans became the first Western society to expressly outlaw wife beating. “Every married woman,” stated the Massachusetts Body of Laws and Liberties in 1641, “shall be free from bodily correction or stripes [lashings] by her husband unless it be upon his own defense upon her assault.”

Three decades later—and still a century before the Declaration of Independence—the pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation went even further. A husband who beat his wife could be prosecuted and subjected to a fine—or even a public whipping, they decreed.

So recognition that household violence, usually perpetrated by husbands, is a societal problem is not a recent realization. But not all colonies and states followed suit. In fact, most didn’t for a long time. A mid-19th-century divorce case that went to North Carolina’s state supreme court illustrated the nature of the problem. The case, Joyner v. Joyner, is notorious in feminist legal circles, and for good reason. Mrs. Joyner sued for divorce, and alimony, on the grounds that her second husband (she had been widowed) was coarse and brutish.

She testified that she found herself married to someone who “inflicted the most severe corporal punishment,” once with a horse whip and the other time with a switch, leaving visible bruises. In addition, he berated her with “abusive and insulting language,” the evidence showed, and accused her of taking property from their home to her daughter by her previous husband—a child he refused to let live with her. He also rousted her from the marital bed after she had retired and refused to let her sleep in it, and forbade her to sit for meals with his family. Eventually she sought refuge with friends and family, taking her 4-week-old baby with her.

Given that set of facts, the trial judge awarded her a divorce and alimony. This verdict was reversed on appeal by the state Supreme Court.

“The wife must be subject to the husband,” Chief Justice Richmond M. Pearson wrote. Citing a Biblical instruction from the Book of Genesis about a woman’s duty (“Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee”), the judge added: “It follows that the law gives the husband power to use such a degree of force as is necessary to make the wife behave herself and know her place.”

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SOURCE: RealClearPolitics

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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