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Law Office Management

Nov. 2, 2014

Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott

Legal historian Lea VanderVelde's groundbreaking book reveals the untold stories behind "freedom suits."

In her path-breaking earlier work, Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier (reviewed July 2010 in this magazine), legal historian Lea VanderVelde skillfully excavated the life story of Harriet Scott, the brave woman and wife of Dred Scott who spearheaded the famous case Dred Scott v. Sandford (60 U.S. 393 (1857)). In Redemption Songs, VanderVelde's remarkable follow-up, the University of Iowa law professor takes the ambitious step of researching the broader context of "freedom suits" filed in St. Louis, Missouri, between 1814 and 1860, in which hundreds of slaves petitioned the courts for their and their children's emancipation.

Contrary to popular belief, the Dred Scott case was not an isolated instance of a slave litigating for freedom; Vander-Velde and fellow researchers unearthed roughly 300 petitions from St. Louis alone, in which 239 litigants challenged their bondage. The author chose St. Louis because it was the jurisdiction where the Scotts had filed their individual freedom suits in the late 1840s. (Harriet and Dred Scott's cases were combined by the time they reached the U.S. Supreme Court.)

These freedom suits are the "redemption songs" of VanderVelde's title. "In suing for freedom, the slave defies his or her master," she explains. "But when one sings a redemption song, one speaks ... enough of the truth to meet the elements legally necessary to redemption."

Through a serendipitous series of encounters with Missouri courthouse staff and archivists, VanderVelde rescued original pleadings, depositions, and other papers from shoeboxes and abandoned shelves. The trove is stunning: "For more than a century, the documents lay undisturbed tied with brown ribbon, beneath coats of dust, sometimes piled and sometimes shelved haphazardly on irregular bookcases in a warehouse room full of forgotten litigation and unwanted furniture." The results are fascinating; many of the 300 petitions succeeded. VanderVelde chronicles a dozen cases in detail and impressively analyzes the transformative impact of the corpus of freedom suits on American legal history.

Despite the plaintiffs' common goal of individual liberty, VanderVelde identifies salient differences of legal argument and moral suasion. Twenty claimants (18 of them progeny of the same woman) argued that they were Native Americans and therefore (like whites) could not be legally enslaved in St. Louis. Another 43 litigants claimed "mistaken status" - not in terms of racial classification, but because they already possessed legal status as free individuals. Four asserted that their master had agreed to let them purchase their freedom but breached the contract. The remaining and largest group of litigants took the courageous step of directly challenging the injustice of slavery, petitioning the state to override their masters' wishes on the basis that their (or their mothers') residence in free territory entitled them to freedom.

"At the crux of these cases is a story like few others," writes VanderVelde. "It is a story told by a slave while enslaved, a person who is normally expected to be neither seen nor heard." Perhaps the book's most valuable contribution is its revelation of the previously silent voices of hundreds of slaves, whose narratives are revealed through documents at the trial court level rather than in more desiccated form in appeals court opinions.

In addition to unearthing individual stories, Redemption Songs captures a rich and full range of historical detail, providing context for the legal petitions within complex debates about the rule of law. It examines the significance of St. Louis slave law as part of a broader tale of westward expansion in the early and mid 1800s. Through VanderVelde's fortuitous interactions with St. Louis researchers and in her assiduous preservation of faded documents, she has released a jewel of a discovery: brave and original voices of slavery, beautifully brought to life.

Margaret M. Russell is a law professor at Santa Clara University.


Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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