Yvonne Pitts’s Family, Law, and Inheritance in America provides welcome new insight into the field of nineteenth-century legal history. For her study, Pitts focuses on disputed wills in Kentucky. More specifically, she analyzes the concept of testamentary capacity—the legal or mental ability to give one’s property to whomever one deems worthy—to demonstrate how issues of race, family relationships, gender roles, medical or scientific authority, localism in law, and attitudes toward mental and physical disabilities evolved in the United States. Like Laura Edwards before her, Pitts deftly balances both elite and local perspectives to provide a more nuanced portrait of the law and its complex influences. Judges and juries weighed competing narratives about family members’ rights and responsibilities in the community with a larger desire to ensure free will, male dominance, and white supremacy.
In order to explore the concept of testamentary capacity, Pitts uses an impressive and detailed study of hundreds of local court records, as well as state statutes, appellate decisions, and broad legal discourse. Her book focuses on nineteenth-century Kentucky, although she weaves in other regional sources as applicable. She argues that Kentucky’s history is not an aberration but representative of much [End Page 721] of the nation. Additionally, Pitts incorporates the latest scholarship on the Bluegrass State, which focuses attention on the state’s border status as a cultural middle ground. Pitts argues that using this approach “offers an opportunity to reconceptualize more broadly the importance of the region as a space where individuals made explicit their ideological commitments because they were contested” (p. 21). However, this argument, although highly commendable, could have been highlighted more prominently throughout the book. Pitts does an excellent job with her first goal, showing Kentucky’s representative qualities, but she could have done more to demonstrate how its unique regional identity as a border, not just a slave, state played a role in these disputed inheritance cases.
Family, Law, and Inheritance is structured topically, rather than chronologically. In her first chapter, Pitts discusses the standard of leaving one’s wealth to “bloodline kin” (p. 38). While many of these cases offered the community an opportunity to confirm legitimate family relationships, they also allowed parents to regulate disobedient children or reward those who cared for them in their old age. The next chapter explores the issue of manumission or interracial gifts in inheritance cases. In such cases, juries and judges had to balance the testators’ desires with the need to maintain a strict racial system. The third chapter details how rising medical diagnoses of insanity “touched off a protracted debate in elite legal and medical circles over who could best determine testamentary capacity” (p. 84). Pitts’s analysis of this debate sheds new light on the growing professionalization of both medicine and the law in this era, resulting in the triumph of legal localism by the turn of the century.
The fourth chapter demonstrates the connection between testators’ physical bodies and potential disabilities and their perceived mental capacity. This is one of Pitts’s most innovative chapters, connecting the history of disability with property law in an exciting way that expands both fields. As she argues, “disability and impairment were forms of evidence presented in trials, drawn from a wider social discourse that devalued disabled bodies” (p. 140). Finally, in her last [End Page 722] chapter, Pitts shows how married women’s testamentary capacity was doubly impaired by the “doctrine of marital unity” and perceptions of women’s legal abilities as citizens (p. 164). Although many women attempted to use the legal loophole of equity to bequeath their separate estates, Kentucky courts continued to privilege husbands’ authority and rights to property throughout the nineteenth century.
Although often dense with quantitative and qualitative data, Pitts’s book moves swiftly and engagingly through these various topics, giving readers a vivid portrait of nineteenth-century Kentucky families. This book will be an excellent resource for both social and legal historians in the...