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Bastardy and nationality: the curious case of William Shedden and the 1858 Legitimacy Declaration Act

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-08, 09:35 authored by Jenny Bourne Taylor
This article explores the complex law of illegitimacy in the nineteenth century and its relationship to questions of national belonging and subject-hood, thorough the use of a specific legal case study - that of Shedden v Patrick, a dispute over legitimacy and property which opened in 1804 and lasted until 1869. William Shedden was born in America of a Scottish father, who had married his mother, but after his birth. His claim that he should inherit the Shedden family estate in Scotland, as both his father's lawful son and a natural-born British subject, brought together a bewildering array of laws, as formal and informal partnerships in the former colony, together with the discrepant legitimacy codes of England and Scotland, were brought to bear on inheritance claims based on laws of nationality and domicile. Shedden's fight to prove his legitimacy led to the passing of the Legitimacy Declaration Act in 1858, but it also gave rise to a series of legal debates on the nature of personal status, and to the complex ways in which both personal legitimacy and nationality operate as legal fictions. Here I trace how the twists and turns of the case, in 1808, the 1840s and the 1860s, illustrate different facets of these debates on legitimacy and national belonging, and also their intersection with other lines of exclusion drawn around the legal identities of both family and nation. 'Bastardy' was a profoundly troubled category in the mid-nineteenth century, partly because it highlighted the difficulties of defining legal identity itself.


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Cultural and Social History




Berg Publishers





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