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Wives Not Slaves

Patriarchy and Modernity in the Age of Revolutions

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

Wives not Slaves begins with the story of John and Eunice Davis, a colonial American couple who, in 1762, advertised their marital difficulties in the New Hampshire Gazette—a more common practice for the time and place than contemporary readers might think. John Davis began the exchange after Eunice left him, with a notice resembling the ads about runaway slaves and servants that were a common feature of eighteenth-century newspapers. John warned neighbors against “entertaining her or harbouring her. . . or giving her credit.” Eunice defiantly replied, “If I am your wife, I am not your slave.” With this pointed but problematic analogy, Eunice connected her individual challenge to her husband’s authority with the broader critiques of patriarchal power found in the politics, religion, and literature of the British Atlantic world.

Kirsten Sword’s richly researched history reconstructs the stories of wives who fled their husbands between the mid-seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, comparing their plight with that of other runaway dependents.  Wives not Slaves explores the links between local justice, the emerging press, and transatlantic political debates about marriage, slavery and imperial power. Sword traces the relationship between the distress of ordinary households, domestic unrest, and political unrest, shedding new light on the social changes imagined by eighteenth-century revolutionaries, and on the politics that determined which patriarchal forms and customs the new American nation would—and would not—abolish.

408 pages | 11 halftones, 3 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2021

American Beginnings, 1500-1900

Gender and Sexuality

History: American History

Law and Legal Studies: Legal History

Women's Studies


Wives not Slaves is a must-read for anyone interested in the interplay between popular culture and law. Readers will appreciate both the narrative power of its case studies and the elegance of its arguments. This powerful book not only deconstructs the feminist analogy of marriage as slavery, it reassesses the notion of expanding equality in the age of revolution. Better yet, it is filled with thought-provoking implications for our own age.”

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University

“Sword unsilences the past, recovering the cacophonous voices of all the ordinary wives and husbands who put their domestic unions on trial in the pages of early American newspapers. A keenly argued study of the making and breaking of colonial marriages in the court of public opinion, Wives Not Slaves explains how marital practices developed in dialogue with the elaboration of other species of household dependence even as it eviscerates the false equivalence between divorce and emancipation.”

Richard Bell, University of Maryland

"Sword’s decades of hard work pay off with a clear, intriguing, and articulate discussion of marriage law as it developed in the American colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. . . . Sword has found a creative, intricate, and refreshing way to approach the history of marriage law and colonial life . . . The timely nature of Sword’s publication in the era of #metoo and #blacklivesmatter allows the author to engage in historical conversations, the legacies of which are still felt today. Sword’s work engages with colonial, American, feminist, slave, and legal histories as well as conversations in anthropology, sociology, and government. . . . Through the use of enticing prose, seductive narratives, and provocative peculiarities, Wives Not Slaves will undoubtedly find its place among scholars, students, and citizen historians for years to come."


"Highly recommended. . . A beautifully written, strongly argued narrative that will transform how readers think about the evolution of women’s rights in the colonial US. "


"Sword reconstructs the stories of wives who fled their husbands between the mid-seventeenth and early nineteenth century US, comparing their plight with that of other runaway dependents. She explores the links between local justice, the emerging press, and transatlantic political debates about marriage, slavery, and imperial power."

Law & Social Inquiry

"This excellent, fine-grained study connects legal regimes to patriarchy’s quotidian preservation. . . . [Sword's] detailed analysis historicizes the workings of patriarchy and women’s defiance in ways that feminist theory and other disciplinary perspectives may overlook."

Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Though Sword began researching runaway wives and slaves more than twenty years ago, Wives Not Slaves reads as equally urgent today. As Sword notes, this is in part due to the recent #MeToo movement, which has highlighted the persistence of patriarchal authority. Yet the relevance of Sword’s book is equally a testament to the originality and the incisiveness of her analysis. Wives Not Slaves reshapes our understanding of coverture, legal treatises, and desertion notices, calling attention to reinventions of patriarchy in the eighteenth century and our own time." 

William and Mary Quarterly

"Kirsten Sword’s Wives Not Slaves: Patriarchy and Modernity in the Age of Revolutions offers an incisive and compelling argument about how the rise of print, in particular public notices in newspapers, mediated spousal separation and to a certain extent shaped legal discourses surrounding the dissolution of marriage. The book provides ample context for the cases it highlights by tracing the halting and roundabout ways the jurisdictional debate about divorce unfolded in England and in the colonies."

Early American Literature

Table of Contents

Introduction: “If I am your Wife, I am not your Slave

The Political Uses of Ancient Patriarchy
Divorce, Jurisdiction, and the Location of Law
Debt and the Paradox of Masculine Possessory Rights in the Age of Revolutions

1. The Trials of Christopher and Elizabeth Lawson: An Introduction to Post-Reformation Debates about Marriage

The Puritan Context of the Lawson Marriage
Arguments for Separation and Divorce
Weighing the Charges: Credibility, Economic Misconduct, Sexual Crime, Racial Boundaries, and Slander
Law’s Irresolution

2. Submit or Starve: Manby v. Scott and the Making of a Precedent
Dynastic Marriage and Family Politics
Divorce in Interregnum England
Manby v. Scott and the Domestication of Politics
Making a Precedent

3. The Runaway Press
Runaway Slaves and Servants and the Development of Colonial Labor Systems
Wayward Wives, Colonial Law, and a Shift in Practice
The Rise of the Press
4. Marriage, Slavery, and Anglo-Imperial Jurisdictional Politics

Disorder in the Legal System: Common Law, Equity, and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction
Colonial Household Conflicts, Local Law, and the Shadow of Imperial Norms in the 1720s
Ancient Patriarchy and the Invention of “Possessory Rights”
Repercussions of Imperial Intervention in Marriage Law
The Rise of Blackstone
The Echo Chamber of the 1760s
5. A Matter of Credit: Husbands’ Claims
“Lest she should run me in debt”: Credibility and Masculine Vulnerability
“Behaved in a very unbecoming manner . . . and has eloped from me”: Implied Sexual Scandal
“Some debates that have subsisted between us”: Domestic Violence
“Will not be persuaded, either by me or her best friends, to return”: Preempting the Law
“To her usual place of abode, and to her duty”: Husbands versus Communities
6. “In Justice to my Character”: Wives’ Replies
A Change in Values or a Change in Venue? Patterns over Time and Place
Ann Wood’s Advertisement
“Endanger my life by dwelling with him”: Ann Wood’s Plea
“On the Providence of God”: Prayers and Curses
“The few remaining days of my disconsolate life”: Sentimental Dependence
Authorship, Agency, and Remedy
7. Wives Not Slaves
Liberty versus Loyalty: Marriage as Metaphor
“If I am your Wife, I am not your Slave
“The Privilege of my Negroe Wench”
“Her service & conjugal comfort . . . which he had a right to have”
“We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems”
8. Rethinking the Revolutionary Road to Divorce
Divorce and the Jurisdictional and Personal Politics of Revolution
Divorce and Emancipation: A Useful False Equivalence
Divorce as a Woman’s Remedy: Revolutionary Expectations and the “First Families” of the United States
“Down the Stream of Time Unnoticed”: Family Secrets, Family Stories, and Legal Change

Epilogue: “The Rigour of the Old Rule”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Legal Education
Manby v. Scott in the Nineteenth Century
Abbreviations and Source Notes


American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies: Oscar Kenshur Book Prize

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