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Headline-grabbing murders are far from the only cases in which sanity has been disputed in the American courtroom. Law and the Modern Mindtraces this history of litigation, revealing how ideas of human consciousness, agency, and responsibility have shaped American jurisprudence.
Susanna Blumenthal analyzes the religious, philosophical, and medical understandings of the self that were often in conflict during these trials. In a newly independent republic, fears of a citizenry maddened by too much liberty haunted the courtroom. Judges struggled to reconcile Enlightenment rationality with new sciences of the mind suggesting that deviant behavior might result from disease rather than conscious choice.
They faced serious conundrums as they attempted to apportion civil as well as criminal responsibility, aiming to protect the helpless from imposition while ensuring the security of business transactions. Defining the threshold of competence was especially vexing in litigation within the family circle, which raised uncomfortable questions about the obligations of kinship and marriage.
This body of law and practice coalesced into a jurisprudence of insanity, which also illuminates the position of other categories of persons to whom the insane were compared, particularly minors, married women, and slaves. Over time, the freedom allowed to the eccentric was enlarged as jurists came to recognize the diversity of beliefs that could be held by otherwise reasonable persons.
Focusing on the problematic relationship between consciousness and liability, Law and the Modern Mind offers a new way to understand the history of American law in its formative period.