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Institute of Legal and Constitutional Research

ILCR Laidlaw Scholar

Eleanor Braithwaite,
Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholar, 2018 and 2019. 

During my two summer research projects as part of the Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholarship programme at St Andrews University, Scotland, I was given the opportunity to work under the supervision of John Hudson and Caroline Humfress at the Institute of Legal and Constitutional Research. Over two summers, I enquired into how nineteenth-century legal reformers conceived of the law in abstract and in terms of its utility. For each of my research projects, I selected a legal reformer working in a Western context during the nineteenth century. Here, I offer a brief biography of each of the two reformers I focused upon and also an outline of the question I used to examine the approach to law of each reformer.

For my first research project, I looked at how Sir Edwin Chadwick (1800-1890), a Victorian public health reformer and civil servant based in London, conceived of the law in abstract. In his career in the civil service, Chadwick contributed to factory reform laws, led the investigation which led to the passing of the Public Health Act of 1848, and was an advocate for active, centralised intervention by the government in matters of public health. For this project, I visited the UCL site in Bloomsbury, London, where the Chadwick papers are kept. I examined Chadwick’s personal letters, memoranda, government notes, and other sources related to my project at the archive. In researching his conception of the law in abstract, I concluded that Chadwick viewed the law as primarily being parliamentary statute, that he viewed legislation as both a solution and a preventative measure in the cause of social reform, and that the law could be used in a utilitarian manner to promote the public good.

For my second research project, I examined how Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887), an advocate and campaigner of asylum reform in nineteenth-century America, conceived of the utility of law in the context of her reform campaigning. Previously working as a governess, schoolmistress, and author in Boston, Massachusetts, Dix experienced a lifechanging moment in 1841 when she witnessed the poor conditions in which the mentally ill and insane were kept at the East Cambridge House of Correction. Dix subsequently became an asylum reformer, petitioning state legislatures on the condition of the insane and highlighting to legislators the poor conditions the mentally ill often endured. Leading investigations into the treatment of the insane in jails and almshouses in various states and allying with influential American figures, Dix secured the passage of bills for the improvement of mental hospitals across the country and even helped create wholly new hospitals for the treatment of the insane. In the 1850s, Dix took her campaign to reorganise mental health facilities abroad and undertook visits to Scotland, Italy, and Germany, amongst other countries. For my research project on Dix, I travelled to the United States to access relevant sources, primarily Dix’s personal letters. I visited Harvard University’s Houghton Library in Cambridge, Boston, where the Dorothea Lynde Dix papers are kept. In addition, I visited The New York Public Library in Manhattan, where I could examine a decade of Dix’s letters and related contemporary newspaper clippings.

Turning to my findings, I will now outline the findings from my most recent research, focusing on how Dorothea Dix conceived of the utility of the law, and proceeding to compare these with the findings from my Edwin Chadwick project.

Firstly, it is evident that Dix conceived of the law as a tool with which to aid her cause of the reform of institutions caring for the mentally ill. This is clear from the beginning of her reforming career, when after witnessing in March 1841 the poor conditions in which insane women were kept at the East Cambridge House of Correction, Dix went to the local court to successfully secure that their rooms would improve. Dix went on to investigate other ‘corrective’ houses in Massachusetts, her efforts culminating in her petition to the state legislature on the condition of the insane. Addressed to the legislature in January 1843, her skilful lobbying resulted in the passage of a bill for the improvement of the existing state mental hospital at Worcester. Dix then went on to repeat her investigations and petitioning across other states and, as Norbury discusses, she developed a formula to influence legislators.[i] This, as Norbury outlines, included personally visiting institutions in which the insane were kept, preparing petitions (then called ‘Memorials’) to the state legislature outlining her findings and recommending reforms, as well as quietly gathering and lobbying allies in that state. Stepping up this effort, in 1848 Dix petitioned Congress for a federal land grant to fund the care of the institutionalised mentally ill, the same year the landmark Public Health Act was passed in Britain. This bill was successfully passed by both houses in 1854 but was later vetoed. Consequently, whether as state or federal statute, Dix evidently viewed legislation as a solution to the crisis in the policies and funding required in the care of the mentally ill. It is thus clear that Dix shared with Edwin Chadwick a conception of using legislation as a solution in the cause of social reform.

Secondly, I conclude that Dix conceived of the law as an effective tool in her cause of asylum reform in acting as a preventative measure to secure improved conditions for the mentally ill in the future as well as the present. This is most evident in her leading an attempt to secure a federal land grant to fund the care of the institutionalised mentally ill in the 1850s. Similarly, in her celebrated address to the Massachusetts legislature in 1843, Dix refers to how the actions of legislators ‘upon this subject will affect the present and future condition of hundreds and of thousands’.[ii] In this way, it is apparent that Dix shared with Chadwick a conception of using legislation not only as a solution to present day issues, but to also prevent a resumption of the status quo. Moreover, from the letters I read, it is evident that Dix, in aiming to prevent the poor treatment of the mentally ill for both the present and future, was eager to persuade and compel not only lawmakers but also other influential figures, due to her eagerness to secure private, state, and federal funding for appropriately operating mental institutions. Through adopting moral appeals in her addresses to governors, sheriffs, lawmakers, and other influential persons, Dix hoped to secure better conditions and appropriate funding for institutions in which mentally ill patients were kept for posterity. A strong example of evoking a Christian sense of duty and morality in her cause to compel a lawmaker or powerful man to act lies in a letter dated 29th March 1886 from William Rathbone VI addressed to John W. Ward.[iii] Rathbone, the son of the late Liverpudlian William Rathbone who was a personal friend of Dix, applauds Ward regarding efforts to write a biography of Dix. Rathbone suggests various anecdotes which might be included in such a biography and refers to an instance where Dix successfully gained funds to improve the management of the insane at a hospital in Rhode Island. Dix, according to the letter, personally appealed to the apparently notoriously miserly industrialist Mr Cyrus Butler, saying ‘I wish that you should be happy both in this world and in the next; and I wish, therefore, towards that end, that you should give me 50,000 dollars towards…the new asylum’. To this day, the Butler Hospital in Rhode Island remains in operation as a psychiatric and substance abuse hospital. Another example of her utilising various channels of influence to the advantage of her cause can be seen in her 1843 appeal letter to the Massachusetts Sheriff.[iv] Outlining how insane persons ‘adverse of moral and mental control’ were kept in ‘demoralizing’ conditions, Dix asks the Sheriff for his opinion ‘as to the expediency’ in keeping ‘persons classed as Lunatics or Idiots’ in country jails and places of correction. Although the Houghton collection did not appear to have the Sheriff’s reply, it can be imagined that Dix is aiming to evoke a human response from the Sheriff to the advantage of her cause. From these examples, it can be suggested that Dix believed in utilising not only lawmakers, but also governors, sheriffs, and other influential persons to the advantage of her cause to secure improved conditions for the mentally ill in the future as well as the present.

Thirdly, I turn to how Dix’s conception of the utility of the law was influenced by her gender and how gender affected the career trajectories of legal reformers in a Western context in the nineteenth century. It is evident that Dix’s gender influenced how she could conceive of utilising the law in the best way for her cause, as unlike Chadwick she had societal limits placed upon her. Certainly, in terms of his career trajectory, Chadwick was not limited by his gender. He was able to train to become a barrister, a profession closed off to English women until after World War One. He would have had no discrimination on the basis of his gender while working as a journalist, nor as the eminent philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s private secretary. Neither would Chadwick’s gender have disqualified or disadvantaged him in his various roles as a civil servant. In sharp contrast, on the other side of the Atlantic, Dix was campaigning in an environment where many powerful institutions discriminated against women. Indeed, as a woman living in Massachusetts Dix was barred from being admitted to the bar, nor could she vote in elections or run for a state legislative seat. Moreover, Dix was limited by procedure, as it was not custom for a woman to address legislatures at that time. Nonetheless, Dix did not let such barriers prevent her from influencing lawmakers. Although barred from presenting petitions and testimonials to legislatures on the basis she was a woman, she would manage to convince a male representative to read her text aloud. For example, in the case of her eminent memorial to the legislature of Massachusetts in 1843, Dix made the acquaintance of Bostonian physician Samuel Gridley Howe who read her address on her behalf. Furthermore, in her lobbying Dix would not only overcome barriers to her gender, but also use societal conceptions of her gender to the advantage of her cause. In the opening paragraph of her 1843 address, Dix references her gender. She states: ‘Surrendering to calm and deep convictions of duty my habitual views of what is womanly and becoming, I proceed briefly to explain what has conducted me before you’.[v] It appears here that the passion she has for her cause is offered in this extract as an excuse for her to act outside the accepted cultural norms of behaviour for women at this time, perhaps a device she used to draw the male legislators to what she had to say and to compel them to take her address seriously. Furthermore, although Dix had limited means through which to be able to influence legislatures and politicians as a reformer, by gaining the friendship and acquaintance of notable men, Dix could circumvent barriers to her gender and still use the law as a tool in her reform campaign. For example, in a letter dated 1855, William Rathbone V, by this time a personal friend of Dix, addresses the ‘lamentable condition of the insane’ in Newfoundland, which was then a British colony.[vi] He wrote this letter in support of Dix’s attempt to lobby the colonial government to improve the treatment of the Newfoundland insane, writing of ‘the inability of the Col[onial] Government to meet this call upon their humanity’. Indeed, Dix knew that accessing such powerful men and gaining them as allies was key to her cause, as elucidated in the previously referenced 1886 letter from William Rathbone VI addressed to John W. Ward.[vii] In an anecdote, Rathbone writes how he once asked Dix how she managed to powerfully convey her views and persuade people to act in line with her reforming cause, giving the example of her work in the Channel Islands. She apparently told Rathbone she managed to persuade people to enact change by ‘always by going to people whose duty it was to set things right, assuming that they would do so without disturbance’. Further on in his letter, Rathbone outlines how as an ‘extremely feminine’ woman, Dix ‘always acted through her gentlemen friends and admirers’. Evidently, Dix worked within the conventions of her time to form a role for herself in public life and draw attention to the often atrocious treatment of the mentally ill in prisons, almshouses, correction houses, and asylums both at home and abroad. Overcoming barriers to her gender through various means, notably through gaining powerful male allies, Dix was able to act as an effective and active political lobbyist at both the state and federal levels of American government. Consequently, in comparing a male reformer and a female reformer, this offers the historian insight into how gender coloured the influence, scope, and opportunities of a legal reformer in the nineteenth century in a Western context.


I would like to thank my supervisors, John Hudson and Caroline Humfress in the Department of History, for their ongoing support and advice; CAPOD for organising and coordinating the Laidlaw Scholarship; and Lord Laidlaw of Rothiemay for enabling us to have this opportunity in which to gain experience of independent academic research.

19 September 2019

[i] Norbury, Frank B. “Dorothea Dix and the Founding of Illinois’ First Mental Hospital.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-) 92, no. 1 (1999), p.17. <> [22 July 2019].

[ii] Disability History Museum Library Collections: Document: Full Text: Memorial To The Legislature of Massachusetts <> [23 July 2019].

[iii] The Houghton Library, Harvard MA, bMS Am 1838 (892), letter, William Rathbone, 1819-1902, 29 March 1886.

[iv] The Houghton Library, Harvard MA, bMS Am 1838 (727), letter, Dorothea Lynde Dix, January 1843.

[v] Disability History Museum Library Collections: Document: Full Text: Memorial To The Legislature of Massachusetts <> [23 July 2019].

[vi] The Houghton Library, Harvard MA, bMS Am 1838 (891), letter, William Rathbone, 1787-1868, 3 November 1855.

[vii] The Houghton Library, Harvard MA, bMS Am 1838 (892), letter, William Rathbone, 1819-1902, 29 March 1886.

Laidlaw Scholarship Project, “The Law’s Two Bodies” (supervised by Professors John Hudson and Caroline Humfress)

Find out more about the Laidlaw Scholarship Programme here.