- In the Shadow of "Dred Scott": St. Louis Freedom Suits and the Legal Culture of Slavery in Antebellum America by Kelly M. Kennington, and: Before "Dred Scott": Slavery and Legal Culture in the American Confluence, 1787–1857 by Anne Twitty
In June 2012, Saint Louis was ahead of the curve. That month, the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation and the National Park Service unveiled a statue of Dred and Harriet Scott on the south-facing lawn of the city's Old Courthouse. The monument was a reparation of sorts for the couple's defeat in Scott v. Sandford (1857). The state of Maryland caught up in 2017, balancing the equation. First in Frederick and then in Baltimore and Annapolis, officials took down likenesses of U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Roger Taney, a defender of slavery and responsible for thwarting the Scotts' quest for freedom. The reinterpretation of history drove these changes. When descendants of the Scotts and of Taney appeared together in March 2017, they urged a better understanding of the past: "The Scotts and the Taneys believe that Americans should learn from their history, not bury their history," they said in a joint statement.
Two new books provide the historical understanding that is an essential companion to changes to monuments in Missouri and Maryland. In the Shadow of "Dred Scott," by Kelly Kennington, and Before "Dred Scott," by Anne Twitty, both return to the very courthouse where the Dred Scott case was first heard to examine a cache of nearly three hundred freedom suits. These studies of how slavery and freedom were arbitrated in Saint Louis reveal how Justice Taney's conclusion—that Dred Scott was a slave—was at odds with decisions reached in previous freedom suits. Before 1857, Saint Louis had been a jurisdiction where freedom seekers might well expect to win their liberty, despite the structures arrayed against them. There is, however, no teleology of slavery to freedom at work in these texts. Contingency, contradiction, and a diminishing access to the courts explain Kennington's and Twitty's histories of slavery and law.
Freedom suits are compelling artifacts; the ideas and the decisions of enslaved people, who are too often at a distance from archival records, shine through. Still, as Kennington and Twitty expertly demonstrate, such [End Page 318] evidence rarely speaks for itself. Interpretation rests upon close readings, critical comparisons, and the unearthing of new contexts. The results expose the competing power exercised by enslaved people, slaveholders, and the state. These are books about struggle—struggle against law's structures and assumptions—and the stakes were high, foremost for those held in bondage. Their futures were being fixed in the courthouse. At the same time, the institution of slavery was on trial as antislavery advocates set forth objections to the holding of persons as property in legal as well as economic, political, and moral terms.
Kelly Kennington's In the Shadow of "Dred Scott" is organized into seven thematic chapters. Chapter 1, "Setting the Scene," introduces the practice of law in antebellum Saint Louis and Missouri. Chapter 2, "Bringing Suit," explains how enslaved claimants developed a discerning and complex legal consciousness. The work of lawyers in chapter 3, "Crafting Strategy," shows how far more than blunt antislavery thought sustained freedom suits. Chapter 4, "A World in Motion," situates Saint Louis in space and time, from its fidelity to the free-soil principle to the circumstance of a border state and proximity to the free state of Illinois. Chapter 5, "Double Character," builds on the insights of Ariela Gross to show how enslaved plaintiffs were regarded as both property and persons. Chapter 6, "Defending Suits," takes the perspective of slaveholding defendants and reveals their frequent contempt for the rule of law. Kennington's concluding chapter, "Political...