Kendra Matthews, Breach of Promise to Marry in Illinois: An Action that Belongs in the Past (1995)
The breach of promise to marry action stems from 15 th Century English ecclesiastical courts. Under Canon law, a promise to marry essentially equaled a legal marriage. It was adopted into the common law in the 1600s. first as a tort and then as a contract claim. The cause of action found its way to these shores during the colonial era. To succeed on a breach of promise to marry claim, a woman had to prove that there was a promise to marry, that the defendant breached that promise, and that the breach caused an injury to the plaintiff.
Before the end of the Civil War, most families in Illinois lived and worked on farms; families were agrarian economic units. Women lived first under their father's and then under their husband's control. Marriages often were based not on love but on advancing the needs of family formation and sustenance. Early cases such as Fidler v. McKinley (1859) and Prescott v. Guyler (1863) reflected these views of family, marriage and women. The women in these cases, in which fathers were authorized to speak for their daughters in response to marriage proposals, were awarded damages because the breach of promise caused economic harm to their families.
Industrialization in the late 1800s made middle class men more independent from their families but pushed women to marry well, seek good companions and be good wives and mothers. These changes were reflected in breach of promise actions. Damages were based on whether men and women fulfilled their proper roles, men as prosperous breadwinners and women as virtuous homemakers. Courts claimed that a solid emotional attachment helped foster a strong household and began to award damages for "broken hearts." The passage of the Comstock laws put a damper on discussion of sexual behavior and thus probably reduced the number of breach of promise actions. But if the woman plaintiff was "virtuous," courts were more likely to be sympathetic to her claims.
Critics of the breach of promise to marry cases argued that truly moral women would not want money or attention after their betrothed left them and that women who pursued this action must have set out to trap men and take their money. This criticism ignored the economic reality that most women were financially dependent on men. Courts, however, took these critiques to heart. Between 1885 and 1899, few such actions reached the appellate level, and courts were wary of awarding high damages in those that did.
During the first two decades of the 1900s, the action virtually disappeared from the dockets. During this time, women gained more freedom in social, political, and economic arenas. Working provided an economic alternative to marriage, and breach of promise to marry actions became unappealing. They were premised on woman's dependence on man at a time when women were fighting for independence and political rights.
In the 1920s, the number of women in college rose dramatically, and women's social and sexual independence increased concomitantly. Women's virtue fell in importance, and they were harmed less if the promise to marry was breached. As critics of the action argued that only a dishonest woman would bring a breach of promise action, men became more willing to settle in order to avoid a trial or a forced marriage.
During the Depression, men were often unable to pay damages sought by women in breach of promise suits. Women's need for money and freer sexuality increased the fear that women would use the action to trap men. The Illinois courts responded by abolishing the cause of action in 1935. It was reinstated in 1946 in Heck v. Schupp . After World War II the country prospered and traditional morals reappeared, making the action less threatening. Only three breach of promise suits, however, have been reported in Illinois since the reinstatement of the cause of action.
Revised July 23, 2003 (MD)