Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier

By Lea Vandervelde | Go to book overview

Introduction

THIS HISTORICAL NARRATIVE is different from most other biographies because of what it attempts to undertake and the methods used. Neither Dred Scott nor his wife, Harriet Robinson Scott, could read or write, and yet this book undertakes to be the biography of Harriet. There are no letters that reveal her innermost thoughts. Writing a biography of an illiterate person is daunting, but it must be done if we are to understand our common history, and particularly if we are to have any account of significant efforts by subordinate individuals to influence the circumstances of their lives. That, after all, was the point of the Dred Scott case. We must attempt to look at the case from their perspective. Both Dred Scott and his wife Harriet sued to establish their freedom and, derivatively, the freedom of their daughters. To win that freedom, they brought suit against one of the most commercially influential persons in the United States at the time.

No Supreme Court decision stands in greater infamy to this day than Dred Scott v. Sandford.1 The Court ruled that the Scotts were not citizens and could not be citizens because of their race. The Supreme Court of the United States stated that as black persons, they had no rights that white men were bound to respect. The Court endorsed racial inequality and denied their freedom claims in sweeping language. The opinion preempted Congress’s power to make laws to improve their condition of enslavement. And thus, their case prompted a constitutional crisis. This family’s lawsuit demonstrated that the American Constitution as interpreted by the Taney Court was inadequate to bring about slavery’s end, except through the actions of individual states. Because the notorious Supreme Court decision influenced much of what came after,2 it set the stage for the LincolnDouglas debates.3 Dred Scott’s name became famous and famously synonymous with injustice. When the Reconstruction Congress later passed three broadreaching amendments to the Constitution, it did so because the Court’s opinion in the Scotts’ family case had denied Congress the power to act. Further reforms were pressed and continued until the enslaved were declared emancipated and

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