- Before Dred Scott: Slavery and Legal Culture in the American Confluence, 1787–1857 by Anne Twitty
The St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project, an online repository that documents the nearly three hundred freedom suits that appeared in the St. Louis Circuit Court, is a fantastic resource for historians of slavery and the law, and Anne Twitty makes good use of those records in this cogent and deeply researched book. Twitty argues that the proliferation of freedom suits that appeared in the St. Louis Circuit Court was the result of ordinary people's knowledge of the law. Fluid boundaries between slavery and freedom in that region created what she terms a "radical indeterminacy of status," that is, a peculiar mixture of freedom and unfreedom where these seemingly stable categories broke down, allowing for greater access to the legal system for unfree people. Twitty's study joins recent works by historians Kelly Kennington and Lea VanderVelde that examine in detail the freedom suits that appeared in the St. Louis Circuit Court, and her study may be the best yet.1
The term "American Confluence" was pioneered by Stephen Aron in [End Page 189] his important book American Confluence: The Missouri Frontier from Borderland to Border State.2 Whereas Aron used the term to refer to the region where the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers converge, Twitty applies the term much more broadly to incorporate portions of what would become the border states of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. Twitty argues that a common legal culture existed in the American Confluence and shows how ordinary people constructed and shaped "the social and cultural histories of slavery and slaveholding" (3) in the region. Freedom and unfreedom were salient features that existed simultaneously within each of the slave states and free states that made up the region. As Twitty points out, because of these peculiarities and ambiguities, St. Louis, the region's most important city, was a natural place where battles over slavery and freedom would take place.
Twitty organizes her book into two parts. The first part explores the creation of a radical indeterminacy of status in the region and how free and enslaved people, and the lawyers who represented them, used and shaped the law. Her first chapter, one of her strongest, lays out in detail how slavery came to occupy an uncertain place in the American Confluence, from the colonial period forward. The radical indeterminacy of status was the product of "a shared model of bonded labor … where one could simultaneously appear to be a slave, an indentured servant, and, occasionally, even a free person" (28) and gave coherence to a region ostensibly organized around different political or legal principles. Twitty argues that enslaved people demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the law and, contrary to much scholarship, actively embraced the use of formal law and courts. She explores as well the social or political background of their legal representatives, arguing that the freedom-suit attorneys, alongside plaintiffs, contributed to the creation of legal culture in the American Confluence.
In Part II, Twitty deploys separate case studies assembled from the freedom suits to explore the "personal—as well as the legal—consequences of slavery and slaveholding in the American Confluence" (23). The skill that Twitty evinces in tracing individuals through multiple states, and sometimes across decades, demonstrates her ability as a historian. For instance, she uses the story of Vincent, an enslaved person from [End Page 190] Kentucky who was sent to work at the saltworks in Illinois, to explain how freedom was a process that was often years in the making, and not always something conferred at a specific moment. Vincent welcomed being hired out by his master, and as his experiences demonstrate, that practice offered "new opportunities and avenues of negotiation that slaves … took advantage of in striking ways" (166). The hiring out of surplus slaves was not unique to the American Confluence, but sending them to labor in free states was.
Her concluding chapter focuses on...