Abraham Lincoln in Illinois
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives
DOCUMENT 16A BILL FOR AN ACT TO DISSOLVE THE BONDS OF MATRIMONY BETWEEN NATHANIEL B. MARTIN AND SARAH MARTIN HIS WIFE
From the beginning of statehood in 1818, divorces could be granted by the courts or by the state legislature. Divorce laws were very strict, so persons would petition the legislature if their divorce request did not meet the legal criteria. The legislature eventually grew tired of ruling on divorces and so the number of divorce petitions it accepted declined after the 1820s. In fact, this was a point of disagreement between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, his future rival. Douglas felt that only the courts should handle divorces while Lincoln favored the idea of allowing the legislature to grant them.
The General Assembly passed its last divorce bill in 1837 and by 1840 it had stopped taking up matters of divorce. According to Paul Simon in his book Lincoln's Preparation for Greatness, Lincoln's action on behalf of Sarah Martin represented the one exception to the legislature's new policy.
On January 16, 1840, Lincoln introduced a petition to the General Assembly that he had received from Sarah Martin, who was asking for a divorce from her second husband, Nathaniel Martin. Mrs. Martin, a widow with two young children, had married Martin, only to be abandoned by him six days later. In her petition, she said she didn't want to wait the two years the courts required of an absence before they would grant a divorce because of potential debts her husband might incur for which she would be liable.
Lincoln introduced her petition in the House and requested a committee be appointed to review it. On January 25, the committee, with Lincoln as its chair, presented the attached bill that approved a divorce. The bill passed the House but failed to pass the Senate.
In 1848, Illinois enacted a new constitution that expressly prohibited the General Assembly from granting divorces. Although it had received hundreds of petitions requesting divorces, the General Assembly only had approved approximately 43 between 1818 and 1848.
Points to Consider
What would the benefits of the legislature granting a divorce be to the divorcees?
What was the special circumstance Sarah Martin cited as needing to go to the legislature, rather than the courts, for her divorce?
What are some reasons why divorces should be granted under a statewide law instead of by the General Assembly?