Here’s a brief history lesson on divorce and revolution in the United States and France from Andrew Cherlin’s The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today:
“It’s true that divorce was difficult to obtain, seen as shameful, and never granted merely because the spouses wanted to end their marriage. Nevertheless, the seed of divorce was planted in the northern colonies. Connecticut had the most liberal laws of any colony or state in the 1700s, and divorce petitions appeared to increase in the aftermath of the Revolution. Even though the numbers were tiny by modern standards – perhaps fifteen to twenty divorces per year in the second half of the eighteenth century – the rise caused concern among prominent clergy and academics. The middle colonies were more restrictive, while the southern colonies that followed Anglican law did not allow divorce until after the Revolution.
No colony or state, however, went as far as the French National Assembly in 1792, three years after the start of the French Revolution. It passed a law, influenced by the individualistic spirit of the revolution, allowing divorce by mutual consent or at the request of only one spouse on the grounds of incompatibility of temperament and on specific grounds including cruelty and ill treatment and desertion for at least two years. This breathtaking statue introduced principles that would not be seen in Western divorce law for nearly two hundred years. It set off a wave of divorce and a round of opposition from conservatives, especially to the ground of incompatibility. After Napoleon seized power, the law was significantly restricted and the ground of incompatibility was dropped. (Napoleon retained other grounds and divorced Josephine in 1809.) In 1816, after the fall of Napoleon, King Louis XVIII abolished divorce altogether, returning France to the Catholic position. Over the next half century, several attempts to legalize divorce were unsuccessful. Opponents had merely to refer to the excesses of the revolutionary period to beat back divorce legislation. Only in 1884 did France finally legalize divorce.”
This book is interesting because it is more data driven and relies on a comparative perspective. In the United States, 1 out of every 20 marriages ended in divorce in the 1850s, but by 1900 it was 1 out of every 10 marriages. By 1950, it was 1 out of every 4 marriages and now it is roughly 1 out of every 2 marriages.
There’s a long term trend in divorce that long predates the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. The same is true of European and American birthrates, the spread of contraceptive knowledge, forms of birth control other than the pill, and premarital sex. The legal authority of the husband over his wife and children had also been steadily eroding since 1850. By 1900, it had become commonplace for courts to award legal custody of children to the mother over the father, which was a reversal of the traditional custom.
The French Revolution introduced many of these innovations, but was beaten back by reactionaries in later decades. This is true not only of the divorce laws under Napoleon, but also of slavery, racial equality, and black citizenship in the French Empire.