The history of America has been told in many classrooms, but that doesn't mean students hear everything. Consider this: one of the most famous divorces in history shaped America's Declaration of Independence. An affair with a British governor, a rumor of impotency, and a shocking death combined to create a fascinating, and formative, court case. Best of all, one of the prominent Declaration of Independence authors presided over the case, with his notes helping guide the language used in the famous document.
Before Thomas Jefferson became a Founding Father, he worked as a lawyer in colonial America. Though Jefferson's personal life leaves a bad taste in the mouth, his actions as a lawyer cemented his beliefs about personal liberties. He advocated for indentured servants and the right to divorce, both somewhat radical beliefs at the time. While neither case went particularly well for his clients, both inspired Jefferson to consider how an independent America would function – a bit ironic, considering the dissolution of a supposedly sacred union provided the backbone for one of the country's most important documents.
Dr. James Blair worked as a well-known and respected physician in the Williamsburg area of Virginia. Catherine "Kitty" Eustace came to town on a visit with her mother, Margaret Eustace, and immediately hit it off with the doctor, who was rumored to be on the verge of inheriting a fortune from his politically and financially powerful father.
Within just a few months, Eustace and Blair got engaged, despite the 10-year age gap between them. They married in 1771, only to separate almost immediately. Eustace filed three different claims against Blair, including one asking for alimony. She moved in with her mother, who lived just a short distance away.
The marriage between Kitty Eustace and Dr. James Blair likely wasn't based on love. In a letter to Anne Blair, her sister-in-law, Eustace wrote she only married Blair because of how much the Blair family loved her. While that might have been true, Blair's reputation as a successful physician with a rich and dying father probably also motivated Eustace.
The moment she moved out, Eustace sued for alimony and lost. She was ordered to move back in with her husband and did for four months, but nothing about their relationship improved.
Despite their unhappy relationship, Dr. James Blair and Kitty Eustace remained more or less trapped in their marriage. Divorce was illegal in Virginia, which fell under British rule at the time. To file for divorce, residents needed to appeal to Parliament, which rarely granted divorce.
Back in the day, marriage didn't typically happen for love, but rather for financial security and creating families, especially in the flourishing colonies in America. In 155 years of its existence as a British colony, not a single divorce was granted. A lawyer on a case like that of Eustace and Blair would not only have to prove their specific case warranted divorce, but also that divorce should be legal at all.
Though Kitty Eustace and Dr. James Blair separated almost immediately, their distance was far from the only nail in the coffin of their relationship. According to an anonymous letter received by a St. George Tucker, Blair was "incompetent," or unable to perform his husbandly duties. True, Blair had previously experienced seizures due to a mysterious health condition; it's unclear whether those episodes had a lasting impact on his health. Regardless, the rumor spread, adding fuel to the fire of the doomed marriage.
Another portion of the letter also came to the public's attention, that the "old lady persists her daughter is still a maid," implying that Blair and Eustace were unable or unwilling to consummate their relationship.