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home : community : e-community October 16, 2021

10/9/2021 7:26:00 PM
Eustace vs Blair
the divorce case that inspired language in the Declaration of Independence
This is the 23rd in our series of articles from the SAR & DAR about local patriots, events, and other historical information being presented as we prepare for America's 250th birthday, now less than five years away.

Jennifer Baker
Vesuvius Furnace Chapter, DAR


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.

His client was Dr. James Blair, 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.

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 because 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. In America’s 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 the couple separated almost immediately, there were a few challenges in 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.

In September 1771, around four months after Kitty Eustace and Dr. James Blair married, the Fourth Earl of Dunmore, John Murray, came to Williamsburg. The Eustace ladies knew Murray, the new royal governor of Virginia, and had been friendly with him when he'd been governor of New York. Eustace began spending time with him and bringing him gifts while still married to – and clearly feuding with – Dr. Blair. Rumors spread that Eustace was having an affair with the governor, which Blair even took to Murray himself. Murray threatened to remove Blair's brother from his position on the Governor's Council, and the doctor dropped the accusations.

In the midst of preparing for the court case, a shocking twist occurred: Dr. James Blair died in December 1772. As a result, Thomas Jefferson was forced to retire his plan to appeal to the Virginia legislature for a special divorce for his client. But the case was far from over; contrary to Virginia law, Blair left nothing to his estranged wife. His property stayed in limbo and his wife was left with none of his resources. Kitty Eustace sued but was denied access to the doctor's assets.

Kitty Eustace, undaunted by the court's ruling against her, turned to the General Court of Virginia for her appeal. Notably, John Murray, the Governor of Virginia and Eustace's alleged fling, was a co-judge on the case. Eustace hired Thomas Jefferson's cousin John Randolph and Patrick Henry, of "Give me liberty, or give me death" fame, to represent her.

Meanwhile, John Blair Jr., Dr. James Blair's brother, hired Edmund Pendelton and James Mercer to represent his brother's estate. Jefferson served as a consultant on the case, compiling vast amounts of notes that later served to aid his work on the Declaration of Independence.

Kitty Eustace, undaunted by the court's ruling against her, turned to the General Court of Virginia for her appeal. Notably, John Murray, the Governor of Virginia and Eustace's alleged fling, was a co-judge on the case. Eustace hired Thomas Jefferson's cousin John Randolph and Patrick Henry, of "Give me liberty, or give me death" fame, to represent her.

Meanwhile, John Blair Jr., Dr. James Blair's brother, hired Edmund Pendelton and James Mercer to represent his brother's estate. Jefferson served as a consultant on the case, compiling vast amounts of notes that later served to aid his work on the Declaration of Independence.

If Kitty Eustace truly did marry Dr. James Blair for his money and not his love, she got her wish. Eustace won the case against Blair's estate, and she and her mother gained control of all his properties and assets, which they promptly auctioned off. Eustace remarried in 1777 but turned up alone in Williamsburg in 1787. She died just one year later – the same year as her second husband's second wife.

The case of Dr. James Blair concerned personal liberty in a world governed by old laws, laws Thomas Jefferson attempted to overturn using the concept of natural right. Basically, Jefferson posited that a relationship, be it a romantic or governmental one, could be ended if one side felt, and then successfully argued, said relationship was no longer beneficial to them.

Defending Blair was as much about the case itself as it was about the future of America. Giving the British authority over divorce in the colonies meant that they were not free to govern themselves; they were reliant on the laws of others. The Declaration of Independence claimed freedom from the British, casting off that system – including the British prohibition of divorce, though the newly formed states had their own rules.




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