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The Lasting Effects of Maynard v. Hill on the Definition of Marriage


In 1888, the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in Maynard v. Hill, a case that, when reduced to its most basic elements, is about property rights in a divorce. The ruling by the Court, however, made a much wider impact on our understanding of marriage.

What the case involved

In sum, a man named David Maynard moved to Oregon and made a claim on a grant that would have awarded him 640 acres of land, 320 of which should have gone to his wife, Lydia Maynard. While in Oregon, he obtained a legislative divorce (more on this in a bit). Because he was divorced when he qualified for the land grant, the government took back the 320 acres that should have gone to Lydia and sold it to Mr. Hill (and others). Lydia Maynard learned of the sale, challenged the government’s right to make that sale, and went to court. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled against Lydia Maynard.

The story of the Maynard family is convoluted and fascinating, and deserves to be discussed in detail. (Steven H. Hobbs offers such a discussion; it makes for engaging reading.) Some highlights include:

  • David Maynard sets off on the Oregon Trail without his wife and two children, claiming he will send for them. He never does.
  • He falls in love with Catherine Brashears, and in the interest of getting a divorce, claims Lydia was unfaithful. No one is willing to corroborate his story about his wife.
  • Lydia is supposedly declared dead, yet she shows up in Oregon to assert her rights to the land. Eventually, her rights are rescinded.
  • This case went on for nearly 50 years. Eventually, Lydia did die, and her children took up the claim.

The legal decision to deny Lydia’s claim to the land is relatively straightforward: as David Maynard was not living on the land when he divorced Lydia, he was not fully vested. Because he was not fully vested, Lydia could not be awarded a greater interest in that land than what David had. As such, the Supreme Court ruled that she and her estate had no claim to the land.

Why Maynard v. Hill still matters

There are two interesting takeaways from the case of Maynard v. Hill. First is the question of whether or not the legislative divorce was valid. At the time, a person could seek to terminate a marriage through a court and also through a state legislature. If the legislative divorce were invalid, then Lydia Maynard was entitled to those 320 acres. One could make a fair argument that the divorce was neither fair nor valid, as there was never any real proof presented that Lydia was unfaithful (and because David Maynard was a very powerful man in the Oregon Territory – certainly powerful enough to “persuade” the legislature to grant him the divorce he sought), which would have rendered the grounds invalid.

The second – and perhaps more important – takeaway is the Court’s ruling the marriage is more than a contract:

It is also to be observed that while marriage is often termed by text writers and in decisions of courts as a civil contract, generally to indicate that it must be founded upon the agreement of the parties, and does not require any religious ceremony for its solemnization, it is something more than a mere contract. The consent of the parties is, of course, essential to its existence, but when the contract to marry is executed by the marriage, a relation between the parties is created which they cannot change. Other contracts may be modified, restricted, or enlarged, or entirely released upon the consent of the parties. Not so with marriage. The relation once formed, the law steps in and holds the parties to various obligations and liabilities. It is an institution in the maintenance of which in its purity the public is deeply interested, for it is the foundation of the family and of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.

In short, a marriage leads to the creation of something new in ways that, say, a bank merger cannot. When a couple marries, two people become one in the eyes of the law, and have certain rights and privileges bestowed upon them that they would not have obtained in a different kind of contract.

This argument – that a marriage contract is more than a contract – was cited heavily in Obergefell v. Hodges, too:

[T]his Court’s cases and the Nation’s traditions make clear that marriage is a keystone of the Nation’s social order. See Maynard v. Hill, 125 U. S. 190, 211. States have contributed to the fundamental character of marriage by placing it at the center of many facets of the legal and social order. There is no difference between same- and opposite-sex couples with respect to this principle, yet same-sex couples are denied the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage and are consigned to an instability many opposite-sex couples would find intolerable.

Read More: What’s in a Name? For Loving v. Virginia, the Answer Is “Everything”

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