Social Studies

Sanity and Responsibility in American Law

Personal responsibility is a core value across the United States. Parents often encourage their children to be independent and “free-spirited,” and American culture is defined by ideals of individuality and freedom. But where did this notion come from, how do we decide who is responsible, and what impact does this idea have on our daily lives? In her recent book, UMN law professor Susanna Blumenthal explores how our legal understanding of personal responsibility developed in the early American republic during the 19th century.

Blumenthal focuses on insanity pleas in civil courtrooms, finding that debates about mental soundness played an important role in everything from typical day-to-day trials to high profile criminal cases, such as the 1881 insanity trial of Charles Guiteau for the assassination of President James Garfield. Her analysis of court transcripts and decisions shows that a variety of civil cases often grappled with what personal responsibility and mental capacity meant, as litigants provided competing medical, religious, and philosophical perspectives to make their case. By covering these cases, Blumenthal shows how the idea that life chances are predetermined was eventually eclipsed by the notion that individual choice drove one’s destiny.

These legal debates help us understand broader problems with how American society understands crime and inequality. Legal debates about insanity challenged stories about the “default legal person”—a healthy, personally responsible individual (often only a land-owning, white man). Judges realized that mental illness could affect anyone, and that troubled the Enlightenment ideal of individualism. By using insanity pleas, courts often ended up dehumanizing mentally ill litigants, employing similar arguments that justified the denial of full personhood to Native Americans, enslaved and free Black Americans, and women. This historical ambivalence about what it means to be “personally responsible,” and even just a full person, justified existing inequality by race, ethnicity, and gender that persists in the legal system today.

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