Here's our abstract:
"The Most Esteemed Act of My Life" 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.
Oh, and one other thing--rather than make an already long paper even longer, we've posted the tables here.
The first image is a photograph from the Library of Congress' Historic Buildings Survey of an antebellum law office in Eutaw, the county seat of Greene County. The second image is a slave cabin in Eutaw.
Update: The rest of my posts are on Greene County, the basic data on who probated, on the trust instruments studied here as a new technology, the efforts of testators at emancipation of enslaved people, and on future directions for research.