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Family, Law, and Inheritance in America
A Social and Legal History of Nineteenth-Century Kentucky

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Part of Cambridge Historical Studies in American Law and Society

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  • availability: This ISBN is for an eBook version which is distributed on our behalf by a third party.
  • format: Adobe eBook Reader
  • isbn: 9781107240643

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About the Authors
  • Yvonne Pitts explores inheritance practices by focusing on nineteenth-century testamentary capacity trials in Kentucky in which disinherited family members challenged relatives' wills. These disappointed heirs claimed that their departed relative lacked the capacity required to write a valid will. These inheritance disputes crisscrossed a variety of legal and cultural terrains, including ordinary people's understandings of what constituted insanity and justice, medical experts' attempts to infuse law with science, and the independence claims of women. Pitts uncovers the contradictions in the body of law that explicitly protected free will while simultaneously reinforcing the primacy of blood in mediating claims to inherited property. By anchoring the study in local communities and the texts of elite jurists, Pitts demonstrates that “capacity” was a term laden with legal meaning and competing communal values about family, race relations, and rationality. These concepts evolved as Kentucky's legal culture mutated as the state transitioned from a conflicted border state with slaves to a developing free-labor, industrializing economy.

    • Situates testamentary practices as a process which was shaped by medical and legal elites and ordinary people's notions of family, justice, and racial and gendered orders
    • Brings a new understanding to how ordinary people's conception of rationality and insanity evolved over the nineteenth century
    • Employs quantitative and qualitative analyses of almost 500 wills
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    • Winner of the 2014 Cromwell Book Prize, American Society for Legal History

    Reviews & endorsements

    "In the skillful hands of Yvonne Pitts, the law of inheritance becomes a lens through which to consider broader discussions over the fraught relationships among individuals, their families, their communities, and the shape of American society more generally in the nineteenth century. Highly readable and deeply researched, [this] book highlights the contingencies of social change in this period as people grappled with the implications of emancipation, economic change, and the changing role of women. It also recasts our understanding of people's relationship to the law, showing how the emotions that drove family conflicts had as much to do in defining the law as the law did in resolving their all-too-human disputes."
    Laura F. Edwards, Duke University

    "Family, Law, and Inheritance in America explores one of the most significant – yet shockingly understudied – questions in US history: how free were Americans to determine the disposition of their property after they themselves ceased to exist? By thoroughly examining a century of trials in which testamentary capacity was at stake, Pitts offers keen insights into family structure, race relations, medical expertise, gendered power, and legal doctrine as those factors interacted in different ways over time. This is an outstanding study: the social history of law at its best."
    James Mohr, University of Oregon

    'Family, Law, and Inheritance in America is an excellent example of the new legal history that brings law and legal culture alive through the experiences of average people who, for better or for worse, found themselves and their lives recast through the prism of nineteenth century courts and legal categories. Pitts examines hundreds of wills drawn in two counties in Kentucky during the nineteenth century to see how testamentary bequests revealed complex social and familial relationships.' Danaya C. Wright, Law and History Review

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    Product details

    • format: Adobe eBook Reader
    • isbn: 9781107240643
    • contains: 2 b/w illus. 1 map 11 tables
    • availability: This ISBN is for an eBook version which is distributed on our behalf by a third party.
  • Table of Contents

    1. 'Parental justice': inheritance and obligation in families
    2. 'My black family': manumissions and freedom in inheritance disputes
    3. The arbiters of sanity: medical experts and jurists
    4. Physical impairments and degenerate minds: the body as evidence
    5. A special power: women's testamentary capacity

  • Author

    Yvonne Pitts, Purdue University, Indiana
    Yvonne Pitts is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Purdue University. She received a Filson Fellowship at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky, and has been a fellow at J. Willard Hurst Summer Institute in Legal History at the University of Wisconsin Law School. Dr Pitts has been published in The Journal of Women's History.


    • Winner of the 2014 Cromwell Book Prize, American Society for Legal History

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