Richard Henry Dana Jr., Seamen, Sea voyages, Commerce, New England, Abolition, Prize cases
How appropriate that the year 2015, the bicentennial of Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s birth, ushered in the publication of what will be considered for quite some time the definitive biography of the famed sailor, author, lawyer, and activist. Jeffrey Amestoy, himself a member of the bar as well as a former Vermont Chief Justice, provides a well-written and comprehensive account of the Bostonian’s many achievements. Several chapters cover what are Dana’s better-remembered exploits as a Harvard boy turned common sailor, immortalized in the still-popular Two Years Before the Mast (1840). But Amestoy reminds us that Dana’s life encompassed far more than that memorable sojourn around Cape Horn and to California. Indeed, Dana’s eventful career as a lawyer saw him take up a prominent role in the defense of abused seamen and fugitive slaves, as well as laying crucial legal groundwork for the Union war effort. He would become an important voice for Free Soil and later Radical Republican politics.
The book, organized chronologically to chart the life and death of its protagonist, places great emphasis on the ways in which Dana often failed to behave as a member of Boston’s Brahmin elite should. His family name carried much weight in eastern Massachusetts, but diminished finances simultaneously left the Danas at the margins of high society and forced to work very hard to maintain what position they possessed. As such, Dana clearly never felt quite at ease or fully accepted within the upper echelons of his city. That fact—compounded by the need for respite from his studies—no doubt drove him to see a stint at sea as a good idea. And as Amestoy sees it, time before the mast, bearing witness to the impoverishment of ocean-going life and the abusiveness of officers, forever changed Dana’s outlook. From the moment he saw a shipmate stripped, spread-eagled, and mercilessly flogged, this son of the eastern elite would spend much of his life (and legal practice) defending the downtrodden against the exercise of absolute power.
And so, after returning home from his formative voyage (and gaining great fame—though little remuneration—with the publication of his Two Years Before the Mast), Dana earned his law degree and set up practice [End Page 843] in Boston. His clientele consisted initially of ordinary seamen suing for wages and damages, a fact that was to shape the trajectory of his life in several ways. For one, it required him to work long hours for clients who could rarely afford to pay him much. Money, the want of money, the desire to give his wife and rapidly growing family a respectable situation, drove Dana to follow an almost impossibly busy schedule. Thus the book is punctuated by several moments where Dana, in his journals and correspondence, refers to bouts of breakdown and exhaustion. In addition, his less than “savory” customers and legal work often placed him at odds with the same clannish mercantile elite of Boston society whom the Dana family was supposed to walk amongst.
Dana’s troubled social position was further jeopardized once he began to take work defending fugitive slaves from capture and rendition. The political world Dana had been born into consisted largely of conservative “Cotton Whigs,” industrialists and others invested in the textile business and beholden to slaveholding interests. They and their chief political spokesperson, Daniel Webster, looked askance at abolitionists as troublemakers, and took exception to those like Dana who offered legal advice to escaped slaves and their white allies. With his prominent role in the so-called “rescue cases,” defending clients charged with crimes under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, not to mention his early work for the upstart Free Soil Party, Dana became the target of a smear campaign led by many Brahmins. Publicly insulted, blacklisted, and at one point physically assaulted in the streets, Dana nevertheless persisted, working tirelessly (if oftentimes...