ABOUT THIS BOOK
In postrevolutionary America, the autonomous individual was both the linchpin of a young nation and a threat to the founders’ vision of ordered liberty. Conceiving of self-government as a psychological as well as a political project, jurists built a republic of laws upon the Enlightenment science of the mind with the aim of producing a responsible citizenry. Susanna Blumenthal probes the assumptions and consequences of this undertaking, revealing how ideas about consciousness, agency, and accountability have shaped American jurisprudence.
Focusing on everyday adjudication, Blumenthal shows that mental soundness was routinely disputed in civil as well as criminal cases. Litigants presented conflicting religious, philosophical, and medical understandings of the self, intensifying fears of a populace maddened by too much liberty. Judges struggled to reconcile common sense notions of rationality with novel scientific concepts that suggested deviant behavior might result from disease rather than conscious choice. Determining the threshold of competence was especially vexing in litigation among family members that raised profound questions about the interconnections between love and consent. This body of law coalesced into a jurisprudence of insanity, which also illuminates the position of those to whom the insane were compared, particularly children, married women, and slaves. Over time, the liberties of the eccentric expanded as jurists came to recognize the diversity of beliefs held by otherwise reasonable persons.
In calling attention to the problematic relationship between consciousness and liability, Law and the Modern Mind casts new light on the meanings of freedom in the formative era of American law.
Susanna Blumenthal is distinctive among legal historians of her generation. She brings to her work wide and thoughtful reading in various technical fields—the history of philosophy, the history of psychology, and American and English legal history—and has an immense gift for synthesis and summation. The book is an extraordinary achievement that helps to define the meaning of private law in the nineteenth-century judicial imagination.
-- Hendrik Hartog, Princeton University
This book is an unrivaled synthesis of the legal history of moral responsibility and mental capacity. No one has managed to connect so effectively the particulars of legal judgment of mental capacity—rendered by Blumenthal in a subtle and nuanced manner—with broader religious and cultural changes. She writes beautifully, and even more impressively, she discusses complex and sometimes abstruse doctrines with clarity and precision.
-- Morton J. Horwitz, Harvard Law School
Susanna Blumenthal’s Law and the Modern Mind is an extensive and exquisitely detailed journey through a long overlooked corner of nineteenth-century jurisprudence in America. It is based on years of reading across an impressive array of ornate and largely arcane texts. The author’s capacity to render it into coherent analysis is even more impressive.
-- Sarah Barringer Gordon, University of Pennsylvania Law School
Susanna L. Blumenthal’s book is a thoughtful study of American law’s confrontation with insanity during the 19th century… Law and the Modern Mind traces variations of the insanity theme as it plays out in each legal field. Though the book is by no means a technical lawyers’ manual, Blumenthal is a sure-footed guide through this doctrinal thicket; just as importantly, she narrates gripping human stories from the era’s legal treatises, as well as those that unravel with greater vividness in court proceedings.
-- Meir Dan-Cohen Los Angeles Review of Books
Susanna Blumenthal’s Law and the Modern Mind is a probing and insightful study of the efforts of American judges, jurists, and medical specialists to develop guidelines for determining the proper scope of civil liability when litigants pleaded ‘insanity.’…Law and the Modern Mind is not merely a study of legal doctrines and judicial decisions but a study of the law of ‘consciousness’ and ‘responsibility’ as it was embedded in American life and reshaped over time by changing cultural assumptions, social practices, and economic conditions…Blumenthal’s book probes into the deepest recesses of American law, culture, political philosophy, and national psychology…These general comments hardly capture the depth and sophistication of Blumenthal’s work, and merely suggest some of the subjects she covers and some of the rich, insightful, and provocative arguments she develops. Those interested in almost any aspect of legal history will find it well worth reading.
-- Edward A. Purcell Jr. Law and History Review
Law and the Modern Mind reveals the instabilities that still haunt a legal structure that depends on individual responsibility but is unable to say what that responsibility actually is.
-- Michael Meranze Journal of Interdisciplinary History
Blumenthal has provided us with a challenging meditation on the problem of free will in nineteenth century America.
-- Guyora Binder American Journal of Legal History
Blumenthal has written a formidable study of the cultural work that judges performed in bringing the modern mind into being in the age of contract. Her polymathic grasp of law, medicine, and literature makes this a thick book; her lively wit relieves it from being tedious. The reader will find many rewards within, whether in looking for a thorough discussion about how law and medicine informed one another or in reading the riveting trial stories.
-- H. Robert Baker American Historical Review