The Most Esteemed Act of My Life: Family, Property, Will, and Trust in the Antebellum South
51 Pages Posted: 18 Jul 2009 Last revised: 16 Mar 2010
Date Written: May 12, 2009
This paper combines an empirical study of probate in Greene County, Alabama, one of the wealthiest counties in the United States in the years leading into Civil War, with a qualitative examination of property doctrine and ideology at that time. The data address three key themes in recent trusts and estates literature. First, what testators did with their extraordinary wealth; in particular, how they worked to maintain property within their families, and especially how male testators were suspicious of loss of their family's wealth through their daughters' marriages. Second, the testators used sophisticated trust mechanisms for both managing property and keeping it within their families. In the antebellum era, Americans celebrated the ways they harnessed technologies, from the steam engine to the telegraph and printing press, to create wealth and improve society. This study reveals that trusts should be added to that list of technologies that assisted in the creation and management of wealth. Finally, the data reveal the salience of enslaved human property, often managed through trusts after their owners died and also frequently divided between family members, to the maintenance of family wealth.
While some in the United States at the time, including some jurists, as well as politicians and novelists, questioned the desirability to our country of inheritance, the Greene County data show an extraordinary devotion to maintenance of family wealth. The findings in 'The Most Esteemed Act of My Life' invite further study in other places in the South, as well as in the North, to test the extent to which the existence of wealth (particularly a wealth based on human property) led to different patterns of bequest from those seen among some of our nation's wealthiest individuals at critical period of American history.
Keywords: trusts, wills, slavery, antebellum legal history
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