Date of Award




Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Department of History

Content Description

1 online resource (vii, 145 pages)

Dissertation/Thesis Chair

Warren Roberts

Committee Members

G J Barker-Benfield, Dan S White


Alexander Hamilton, Cultural History, Divorce, Early Republic, Gouverneur, Novels, Trials (Divorce), Trials (Adultery)

Subject Categories

Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | History


Isaac v. Elizabeth Gouverneur: Sex, Sensibility, and the Creation of New York's 1787 Divorce Law combines legal and cultural history to illuminate the beginning of judicial divorce in New York State, analyzing the creation of New York’s 1787 divorce law within a prism not previously used in studies relating to early New York divorce. Prior scholarship has either denied the existence of the 1787 law or concentrated on nineteenth-century rulings to conclude that alimony was always dependent on a wife’s innocence. Chancery Court records from 1787 to 1814, however, show that guilty wives were granted alimony, illustrating a significant change in judicial policy. An exploration of cultural changes during the Early Republic explains the shift. To illustrate the culture in New York during the Early Republic, this dissertation follows a micro-history narrative that focuses on the case of Isaac and Elizabath Gouverneur. In addition to being one of the most complete cases from this period, it was the proceeding that prompted the creation of New York’s 1787 law. Moreover, the Gouverneur case offers an entry-point into the mindset of a late eighteenth-century middling-class woman. An exploration into Elizabeth’s culture sheds light on the creation of the law, as she, New York policymakers, and jurists were influenced by the culture of sensibility, which encouraged sympathy for those in distress and prompted critics to warn that novel reading could create unfaithful wives. Excessive sensibility became associated with the excesses of the French Revolution, and therefore a reaction against sensibility coincided with the reaction against the French Revolution. Sensibility would survive the reaction against it, but it would be cleansed of its association with female sexuality. As the fear of female sexuality altered the culture of sensibility, it contributed to the shift in New York’s divorce policy, which occurred during the 1810s, by punishing guilty wives more than guilty husbands.