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

By Lea Vandervelde | Go to book overview

slavery was abolished by law. Upon this family’s life story, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its bitter ruling and from it the nation learned a lesson about the importance of human dignity and freedom. Who could have imagined that in the long run, this lawsuit would influence the legal evolution of human liberty—not by winning the day but actually by focusing national attention on the losing claim? The Scotts’ very public loss at the Supreme Court gave the struggle for freedom an object lesson.

By refusing to surrender their claim, the Scotts focused the nation’s attention on slavery and raised the issue that ultimately changed the course of American history. Although this family’s fate was at stake, those who sat in judgment of them knew little of the circumstances of their lives. To this day, Dred is described by historians as a somewhat mysterious figure.4 Even less has been known about Harriet, although she was a party to the suit and, legally, her status was key to determining the fate of their daughters. She was considered merely as a procedural paragraph in the notorious opinion, and her distinctive experiences were so deeply buried in the procedural technicalities of the case to have been lost from view. With so little known generally about slaves suing for freedom, the Dred Scott case has been a notorious case without a center, without a means of comprehending the human beings whose fates lay in the balance of the court decision and the sequence of personal events that brought them to the highest court of the land.

In fact, the story of the Scotts’ life makes little sense from the Court’s account of the stipulated facts. Some of the justices of the Supreme Court even expressed bewilderment about the sequence of facts that brought the litigants before them.7 If the Scotts valued their freedom and lived in free territory, why did they ever return to a slave state? Why did they continue to live in a slave state for six years before filing suit? Since St. Louis was just across the river from the free state of Illinois, why didn’t they attempt escape in that six years if they were not always chained?

The lives of subordinate people are consistently erased by time and memory. Servants, such as Dred and Harriet Scott, who sued to improve their lowly status, are partially hidden in history because they could not leave letters and writings. This is generally true of servants, who performed their work without being seen or noticed, and it is especially true of slaves, who were legally forbidden from learning to read. No historian will ever be able to use Harriet or Dred Scott’s own words to reveal the stories of their lives or the sequence of events that brought them to the highest court of the land. Nonetheless, their efforts to resist domination and assert their independence are important and subject to more complex and conditional motives because resisting and losing are often fraught with great consequences. Thus, examining the circumstances in which these subordinate persons turned to the courts to petition for relief must be examined in the context of the specific circumstances that confined them. If we are to recover an understanding of their efforts, other measures must be used to reveal their important stories. This technique is not widely used, though it has been utilized by other historians attempting to reclaim an understanding of the nature of the lives of slaves and Native Americans.8 Other new scholarship has demonstrated more systematic ways that the

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