Last updated: February 13, 2017
Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier, by Lea VanderVelde. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
At the center of the most infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision, Dred Scott v. Sanford, was a family fighting to free itself from slavery. Despite the case’s importance as both a turning point in America’s history and a precursor of the Civil War, the lives of the slave litigants are virtually unknown. In recounting the life of Harriet, Dred's wife and co-litigant in the case, Mrs. Dred Scott illuminates how slaves used the courts to establish their freedom.
A remarkable piece of historical detective work, Mrs. Dred Scott chronicles Harriet's life from her adolescence on the 1830s Minnesota-Wisconsin frontier, to slavery-era St. Louis, through the eleven years of legal wrangling that ended with the high court's notorious decision. The book not only tells her story, but also reveals that Harriet may well have been the lynchpin in this pivotal episode in American legal history.
Reconstructing Harriet Scott's life through innovative readings of journals, military records, and court dockets, VanderVelde offers a detailed account that is a rich portrait of slave life, an engrossing legal drama, and a provocative reassessment of a central event in U.S. constitutional history.
Midway through the book the author explains the strength of their long and bitter fight for freedom, “The Scotts neither ran nor retreated from the legal conflict. They stood and held fast to their claim of freedom. As they held fast, the case attracted the attention of other contending forces, playing out other agendas. What the Scotts did, which was extraordinary for people so vulnerable, was simply to not let go. In turn, they were in for the roughest ride of their lives, which brought them into the national limelight. It is indeed remarkable what can occur when individuals believe they are entitled to justice and entitled to be free.”
More than a biography, the book is a wide-sweeping social history that offers insights into many of the central issues confronting antebellum America-including the status of women, slaves, free blacks, and Native Americans, and the origins of the Civil War.