Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott

Article excerpt

Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott. By Lea VanderVelde. (New York and other cities: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. xii, 305. $29.95, ISBN 978-0-19-992729-6.)

The historiography of free people of color is still in its early stages. Most American historians would agree that a new study on the many avenues African Americans used to obtain freedom is a welcome addition. Lea VanderVelde's book Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott is one such exceptional work about the roughly three hundred freedom suits brought by slaves in St. Louis, Missouri, between the latter half of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the Civil War.

Most scholars of American history are familiar with the 1857 Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford in which Dred Scott, a slave, sued his master for his freedom. Scott and his wife lived, for a time, with his master in Illinois, a free state, before returning to Missouri, a slave state. The Supreme Court denied Scott's claim for freedom, declaring that blacks (enslaved or otherwise) were not citizens and thus had no legal rights. This decision has been amply discussed as one of the many catalysts that led to disunion in 1861, but Redemption Songs puts the Di ed Scott case in the context of other freedom suits in antebellum Missouri.

VanderVelde begins by pointing out that unlike the majority of the slave states, Missouri gave slaves the right "to sue their masters, or anyone else who held them against their will, if they had reasonable grounds to believe they were free" (p. 21). The state also took the extra step of finding legal representation for slaves who brought freedom suits against their masters. Redemption Songs examines a portion of these court cases. Although African Americans brought the majority of the cases, a small number of enslaved Native Americans also sued for their freedom. The Northwest Ordinance's ban on slavery in new territories northeast of Missouri had created a dividing line along the large border between Illinois and Missouri. …

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