Americans were guided in their treatment of the insane by English law and tradition, which recognized that certain segments of the population had special needs. Children, idiots and lunatics “were siblings in the eyes of the law” says author Michael MacDonald, because they all lacked the capacity to reason. These people were put under wardship by the courts, who often sold these wardships to the highest bidder. People who became wards of idiots and children could then plunder their estates or force them into a marriage that was somehow advantageous to the guardian.
Surprisingly, lunatics often fared much better under the wardship system. Because the insane were actually expected to get well and take back their property or at least pass it on to heirs, courts demanded greater accountability from their guardians. King James told the courts that lunatics should be committed to [primarily] friends and family–“that can receive no benefit by their death.” Lunatics weren’t as attractive to unscrupulous guardians precisely because they were insane and therefore couldn’t enter into contracts, including the marriage contract. Though lunatics’ lives were never pleasant, at least they theoretically had a chance for a decent life after recovery.