Category Archives: Mrs. Dred Scott

IFLS Book Club [5] Kim Brooks (Dalhousie) on Mrs. Dred Scott

Find all the other IFLS book club commentary on Mrs. Dred Scott here.


Find the next book club book here.

Kim Brooks is, I think, getting the last word on this book – unless some of you out there have something to add (I would love to hear from you if you have a moment – or just put your thoughts in the comments here).  I’ll try to do a wrap up next week and then we’re on to the next book!


Kim Brooks probably needs little introduction on this blog.  Suffice it to say that given her energy level, it might not be a surprise that she had to go outside legal/academia to find inspiration.  Seriously, you can read about it here (“I have a soft spot for Bruce Springsteen. When I was a little kid, my father would play “Hungry Heart” on high volume on our stereo, and we would jump around on our living room couches screaming the lyrics. It meant little that neither of us could carry a tune.”) and here (where she “…likens learning tax law to seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert – and to drive the analogy home, she even uses his music and lyrics in her classes: “When you see him in concert, there’s no fancy stuff, no glitz, no magic light and balloon show. But he just goes so hard, and that is a really fabulous thing to see. So I use him as an example to show what it is to be truly engaged in something.”).

I should probably just start calling her the Boss – why not?  Anyway, enjoy her thoughts on the book below and on other subjects by looking at her papers on SSRN  here.

Entitled to Justice and Holding Fast to the Possibility:  Mrs. Dred Scott

One of my favourite movies is Léa Pool’s Emporte-moi. The film is a poignant coming of age story.  Scratch that.  Coming of age is appropriate, but it understates the richness of the film and its narrative, which uncovers what it is to be 13 in 1963 in Quebec.

Despite the film’s strengths, here’s what floored me most about it. Pascale Bussières. Bussières plays the protagonist’s mother, the “mère de Hanna”.  She is in myriad scenes through the movie.  But her role is to be absent.  She is the most absent presence I have witnessed on a big screen.

Enter Harriet Robinson Scott.   Harriet.  A procedural paragraph (as described in the introduction to Mrs. Dred Scott:  A Life on Slavery’s Frontier).  A woman who allegedly motivated a case that stood for the idea that black people were not legal citizens and that changed the shape of American constitutional history.

What Lea VanderVelde does in this book is what Bussières does with mère de Hanna.  She puts on to our radar a figure about whom we can feel only ambivalent.  A figure forced into our consciousness by the title of the book, by our understanding that this is a book “about Harriet”, by our hope that it might be possible to shine light on “[t]he lives of subordinate people [who] are consistently erased by time and memory” (at 2).  And yet, of course, when the whole modality of the character, set in racism and colonialism, requires her to be silent, absent, unseen, illiterate…we are forced to be satisfied, as in Léa Pool’s film, to read a character without a centre.

Frustrated, gripped, and moved.  My response to Harriet (and to mère de Hanna).  In each case, the creator of the work creates a space for an impossible figure.  And in each case I wanted more.  Mrs. Dred Scott tracks Harriet’s life.  Follows her path, relates with significant detail the moments that surrounded and must have shaped her life.  We learn in the first half of the book about the period between 1835 and 1840 when Harriet lived on the Wisconsin/Minnesota frontier.  In the second part of the book, we learn about Harriet’s life in Saint Louis and the course of her legal path for freedom.  But there is none of the lint of Harriet’s life.  There is none of the detail that would render her real.  We don’t know when she smiled or whether she liked carrots.  We aren’t sure if she wept at goodbyes or split infinitives.

And yet, despite this limit, Mrs. Dred Scott is a brilliant contribution.  Perhaps the most profound contribution, and this may seem odd, is that it organizes history around the life of Harriet.  Set aside the thornier debates around whether biography can be history: I think it can.  Perhaps the most significant contribution of the book is not that we know more about Harriet, but that Harriet becomes fundamentally centred.  She becomes the anchor for the period of history around which VanderVelde weaves her story.  VanderVelde does not get to discuss 1877, for Harriet dies in 1876.  To allow a woman to shape the period of history that gets told, to mould its geography, seems a profoundly centring act.  Harriet literally shapes history.  We learn, in a sense, a telling of the history as it unfolded in the world occupied by Harriet.

Let me remark in a disorganized way on a few additional characteristics of the book.  First, I was struck throughout at the work it must have taken to write the book.  Mrs. Dred Scott is extraordinary scholarship.  While framed around one life, the life of Harriet, the book is like a good stage play.  The curtain rises, and we catch a framed glance at life on the frontier and in St. Louis.  Writing the book required thirty-three research assistants (see acknowledgements) and 113 pages of very small font endnotes.  It was carefully researched and it changes the way we see a time and place.

Second, for the most part, I found reading the book, work.  It’s not a book that delights the imagination.   In contrast, it demands much.  There is no easy way to create a sense of what Harriet’s life must have felt like.  The reading fell between pleasure and reading I would do as part of my own scholarly pursuits.  It could not be skimmed.  The print is small.  And yet, there are moments where the writing struck me as markedly elegant:

Hers was a life that could be equalled by few that century.  She had lived for several years surrounded by Sioux and Objiwa people who spoke languages at first unknown to her.  She endured brutally cold Minnesota winters.  She traveled the extent of the nation on the steamboat, the most advanced means of travel of the time.  She had served some of the century’s most important, best-educated, engaging, and ambitious men at her master’s table.  She returned as a free black person to live in a slave state that increasingly turned to law to circumscribe her personal liberties.  She nursed her aging husband and kept her family intact through fires, floods, and epidemics.  She sat silently beside her husband in the courtroom and hid her children for their safety, while holding out for her family’s freedom in a hostile environment for more than a decade, a legal battle that extended to the highest court of the land.  (10-11)

Second, the book enables consideration of the relationship between the biographer and her material.  Where should VanderVelde show up in the work?  We no longer pretend, at least for the most part, that there can be an objective review of the evidence.  The degree to which the biographer makes herself known in a text is worth some attention.  In this case, for the most part, it is hard to sense VanderVelde.  And yet there are moments where I acutely felt her presence.  While most of the book is characterized by a careful, detailed accounting of the evidence, VanderVelde does sporadically pause in places where she must have felt curious:

In bidding farewell, the several chiefs left 22 peace pipes as tokens of respect.  The agent was expected to reciprocate.  Taliaferro gave Chief Wah-na-tah his umbrella at the chief’s request.  The Chief of the Yanktons left with the master’s umbrella tucked under the blanket of his horse.  What could a Yankton chief do with this symbol of civilization?   Did he use it to keep the rain off, to provide sunshade on the plains, as a rode, a staff, a symbol of authority, or did he keep the umbrella in the same way that Dr. Jarvis collected Indian goods, as a curious contraption of another culture? (82-83)

Similarly, we occasionally get a feel for the analytical queries of the biographer.  She asks, “[w]hat determines whether a person is free or enslaved in a wilderness area where purportedly no law keeps slavery in place and what law there is forbids slavery, but with weak legal enforcement?” (117). Or later, she questions, “[w]ho was the real enslaver in a system so pervasive and so seamless?” (234).

Third, the gendered nature of life in the world around Harriet is brought into relief by VanderVelde’s work.  This book is a piece of a larger project to document the roughly 250 freedom suits of St. Louis.  That larger project has enabled VanderVelde to offer broader context on the freedom litigants, and to shed light on Harriet’s place in that part of the social history of the time.  For example, VanderVelde notes and explains why most freedom suits were commenced by women:

Harriet fit the profile of freedom litigants better than did Dred, since most freedom suits filed in the St. Louis courts were initiated by women.  Men could run.  They could take the risk of depending on their own wits, physical stamina, and speed.  Men’s chances of successfully escaping were better, particularly if they travelled alone.  Running with children was doomed to fail.  Moreover, most of the women, like Harriet, were mothers with children.  Women frequently invoked as their reason for suit that a sale threatened to separate them from their children. (231)

VanderVelde’s obvious knowledge of the freedom suits provides the second part of Mrs. Dred Scott with particularly fascinating detail.  She is able to link the Scott’s case with related cases in the same era, speculating on the implications of those cases both for the outcome in the Scott case and for how Harriet and Dred must have felt about their chances.

Fourth, the book goes some way to providing the reader with a glimpse into the cruelty of the slave trade, to the impossible conditions of the frontier, and to the racism that underlined seemingly every moment of existence.  There are moments where VanderVelde’s understated writing style achieves this end almost without being remarkable: “For white folks, New Year’s was a day of visiting; for black folks, New Year’s brought the annual spectacle of the slave leasing auction on the courthouse steps” (247).  (The semi colon in this sentence, linking and yet keeping visibly distinct the different realities seems particularly apt.)  I longed, sometimes for greater connection to the critical race literature and yet was heartened at least to notice that VanderVelde finds some inspiration in the work of subaltern scholars, for example, Gayatri Spivak (see note 9, Introduction).

Ultimately, Mrs. Dred Scott remains an account of Harriet that never becomes a story.  But it is an account that shapes the tale of a period of history in ways that will change the way we think about it.


IFLS Book Club [4] Maneesha Deckha (UVic) on Mrs. Dred Scott

Find all the other IFLS book club commentary on Mrs. Dred Scott here.

Find the next book club book here.

Maneesha Deckha from UVic sends us her thoughts.  Maneesha’s also going to be featured on the blog in the next week or so, since she was tagged by Daphne Gilbert in Daphne’s profile, so here is a link to Maneesha’s UVic page for now. Maneesha’s take on the book is different from mine – and made me realise how sometimes reading critically can mean you miss as much as you gain.  I lost so many of the moments Maneesha describes in my reading, because I was looking for something that wasn’t there. A good lesson.

I am so pleased that Sonia picked this book. I hadn’t heard about it until it was announced as June’s official selection and it would have been exceedingly unlikely that I would have picked it up on my own as historical works never top my list of books to read, either academic or fiction.

Lea VanderVelde has converted me with Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier. I learned so much from this meticulously researched and wonderfully narrated account of Harriet Scott’s life leading up to the infamous case.

There are many things to appreciate in the work, not the least of which is VanderVelde’s painstaking assembly of disparate historical records involving a vast cast of characters.  VanderVelde communicates these details in a narrative form that is truly fascinating and fluid.

I felt as if I was reading a historical novel, especially when VanderVelde described the domestic routines and social lives both when Harriett is living in the Taliaferro household on the frontier and when she is taken to St. Louis and hired out to a socially popular young couple. But I felt that it should not be so entertaining to read. I found that I was having flashbacks that I didn’t want to have – to reading the Little House on the Prairie series as a child during the descriptions of life on the frontier and to watching Gone with the Wind as a teenager during the descriptions of the military/society life that Harriett and her family were exposed to as slaves to well-connected families.

I soon found myself wondering: Where were the accounts of brutality and hardship? VanderVelde, of course, does not seek to underestimate the injustices of slavery or of the implications of the colonial encounter for Native Americans.  Indeed, the chapter on the making of the 1837 treaty between the government and the Ojibwa leaves no doubt for the reader as to the unfairness of the terms and the exploitative manipulation of the Ojibwa by the American Fur Company in pursuit of their capitalist interests. It is not really until the middle of the book, however, when she is describing the entrenched racial lines in St. Louis and the practices of the slave-traders there, that VanderVelde permits a similar contemplation of the injustices the Scotts would now suffer on a daily and system basis.

A reason for this might be VanderVelde’s observations that, comparatively, the life Harriett led, even as a slave on the frontier, but within the prominent household of government Indian agent Taliaferro, was certainly more sheltered than that which blacks endured below the frontier and in the South.  It was also less harsh than the life experienced by Native Americans and other individuals, though free, who were not housed in government or military compounds and had to find ways of surviving on their own in the merciless frontier winters where outside provisions were scarce. VanderVelde makes numerous references to how many times tribe members came to the residence for food and how it must have been Harriett who gave it to them.

Another reason for the implicit but understated account of the everday suffering and injustices of having one’s life, labour and body appropriated by others is precisely their quotidian and ever-present nature. It might be too difficult otherwise to dispatch the details VanderVelde needs to to fully outline the swirling social and political circumstances informing Harriett’s day-to-day life and life trajectory.

From this point on, the book focused on Harriett’s life and the litigation she and her husband pursued. In this portion, VanderVelde retains the incredibly close attention to detail by explaining as much as possible how the litigation must have unfolded, the likely motives for all parties involved, and the legal obstacles and personal hardship Harriett and her family must have encountered on a daily basis because of the momentous decision to sue for their freedom.

With each turn and twist of the grinding lawsuit, and surrounding political agitations against free blacks, I wondered how much more could Harriett and Dred endure as freedom litigants? What must it have been like to move between prisons and alleyways, subsisting in awful conditions, amid pestilence, poverty and the continual threat of violence and apprehension, while trying to raise two daughters?

VanderVelde does an impressive job of imagining, where the absence of written records does not fill in the gaps, what Harriett’s responses were to the drawn out legal process and the uncertain legal status of her and her family. Yet, I found myself wishing for revelations of Harriett’s own thoughts and reflections.

I liked that VanderVelde made use of what little of these she had recorded evidence of to introduce and close the book. For me, it left Harriet’s imprint on the book, that and the very last 4-line paragraph stating that Harriett died in the same alleyway housing she lived in during the trial – “less than five blocks from the courthouse” where she had first filed suit. It is characteristic of VanderVelde’s crisp and efficient style throughout for her to give us the details of Harriett’s death in a few words after 324 pages of closely unraveling the details of her life, but to fill them with poignancy.

And the very last line that follows is similarly moving, reminding the reader what VanderVelde stated at the onset: “It is amazing what can happen when an individual comports herself as if she is indeed entitled to justice and holds fast to the possibility.” Indeed, it is. For this inspiration alone, not to mention the academic edification and historical immersion that comes from this ambitious tome, Mrs. Dred Scott was so satisfying to read.

IFLS Book Club [3] Emily Grabham on Mrs. Dred Scott

Find all the comments on Mrs. Dred Scott here, and the next book club book here.

This comment comes from the beating heart of UK legal feminism – Kent Law School.

Emily Grabham is a feminist academic at Kent Law School, with some Canadian connections (an LLM from Queen’s, for one).  She writes on a variety of subjects –  here are some recent publications:

It’s been a while since I read any legal history, and so reading a book, such as this, which aims to write Harriet Scott back into history, has been really illuminating. Mrs Dred Scott is many things. It is a very interesting account of the life of Lawrence Taliaferro, US government agent to the Sioux nation in Minnesota in the 1830s and of the incremental use of property law, commercial interests, and other means to expand US control over northern Wisconsin. It is a social history of life in and around Fort Snelling, and, as such, it documents the roles and hierarchies which contributed to the expansion of white control displacing the Ojibwa and Sioux tribes from large chunks of the Northwest Territories. It is a new and different account of the processes which led to the famous Dred Scott case, and of the impact of that litigation on Dred and Harriet Scott and their family. However, it is not a convincing biography of Harriet Scott herself.

There are many reasons for this, and Lolita and Sonia’s posts have already eloquently provided much of the reasoning that I’m using here. Lolita points out in her post that Lea Vandervelde is attempting to write ‘micro-history’. This term is new to me but I can now see how the term is useful in the context of the book. Writing about a woman who did not communicate through writing and who has left no written record of her own life is a difficult task, and hence it is necessary, if trying to build a picture or feeling of Harriet’s life, to use other sources. Vandervelde has used the written sources at her disposal: Taliaferro’s diary, secondary accounts and written histories of the area and of key historical events, newspaper reports, census and other official/bureaucratic documentation. What emerges is what can be gleaned from those who do the writing. In other words, much of this book – a considerable proportion – is actually very much about other people, mostly rich white and relatively powerful men, and not about Harriet herself.

Of course, it is impossible to write any type of social or individual history without working through the implications of our relationships with other people. As such, it is legitimate in this book, to a certain extent, to write about people who are not Harriet (!) and to discuss how their lives would have impacted on Harriet’s life. However, there is far too much in this book which is not about Harriet. Almost a third of the book is really about Taliaferro. Furthermore, gleaning from written sources by rich, white, slave-owners and then extrapolating to build an account of Harriet’s life could be challenged as re-embedding of white, written histories over Black, working class and/or slave histories and the lives of those steeped instead in oral traditions of communication. If the defence of this type of methodology is that it attempts, to some extent, to work with what we have, and then to put these materials to the task of acknowledging the lives of slaves/servants/working women such as Harriet, the risk is that such histories are simply not sufficiently centred on women like Harriet herself.

Reading this book, I returned again and again to the question of how to write otherwise: how to write against and outside of the usual currents of communication which do so much to obscure the lives and ways of being of the non-normative or less powerful. It is good that Vandervelde takes up this task. Yet producing another account of the daily lives of men, from their diaries and their letters, whilst surmising what chores Harriet was doing in the kitchen (which happens for at least half of the book) arguably does not adequately live up to the real work of writing-otherwise. At the very least, Harriet deserves more of an inner life than what is presented in this biography, and if it is too difficult to present such this then maybe, as Lolita points out, it is better for Harriet to remain at them margins. As a labor lawyer, it was natural for me to be interested in the work that Harriet did, and of course, her work took up a huge amount of her life. Yet work was not everything. We are given very little information about the family she was born into, which must have shaped her worldview to a greater or lesser extent. We know little about her friends, what she wore, and how she came to meet Etheldred. Vandervelde does acknowledge the limitations of information in this regard. However, as has already been pointed out, in the absence of information about her own family and friends, we are given the impression that she must have been very much influenced by Taliaferro. What if she was not influenced by Taliaferro and his ideas of justice? There are many reasons to suspect that her outlook on life might not have been the kind of outlook to be swayed by this man. Relationships of hierarchy do not always translate into relationships of influence or shared moral outlook.

At times, the language and assumptions used in this book grated. We are reminded again and again of Harriet’s being ‘illiterate’, with little reference to the cultures of conversation and other everyday practices which allowed people to function socially and economically without writing. Taliaferro’s role is subject to little critical scrutiny: his fathering of a child with an Indian woman, whom he visits but does not acknowledge, is presented as largely unproblematic or at least not as bad as other examples from that time. The economic and social relations of gender, sexuality, and service which lead to Harriet’s colleague and possibly friend Eliza bearing a child who had the same name as a local doctor are similarly glossed over. Yet other areas of life are rendered in wonderful and compelling detail: Sonia has already written about the winters and the struggle for survival, and I would also say that the coming and going of the river boat provides compelling insight, as do the descriptions of court procedure much later in the book.

In conclusion (for now), as Sonia, I found this book useful and illuminating but not an easy read. My overall impression was that Vandervelde threw herself into her research and tried hard to remain faithful to what her sources could and could not tell her, but found herself caught up along the way in the stories of some informants, but not always those who were most central to the biography. This could very easily have been two books: one about Harriet Scott and another about the process surrounding the negotiation of the treaties opening up the forests of northern Wisconsin to the US government and ultimately also to the commercial interests of those already involved in the fur trade. Certainly the context in which Harriet lived in Minnesota, as well as the relations of race, indigeneity, and law played out during the mid 1800s in that specific location are extremely important for her overall story, but Vandervelde became too enmeshed in Taliaferro’s dilemmas and left Harriet behind for too long. This is a compelling book, but I feel I know little more about Harriet than when I started. I do, however, know and appreciate a lot more about legal process, white expansion, and the paradoxes of ‘frontier life’ than when I began. I’m looking forward very much to the next book.

The Hanging of Angelique

Since reading Mrs. Dred Scott, I’ve been thinking that one book I really need to read is The Hanging of Angelique by Afua Cooper (click through the picture for ordering from  This retelling of a historical event and bringing to “life” of a historical figure was nominated for a Governor General’s award.

Pre-dating any other first-person account of slavery by more than forty years, Angélique’s story is, by all measures, the oldest slave narrative in the New World. In The Hanging of Angélique, Afua Cooper has delivered an important contribution to Canadian history and an essential perspective on slavery. (from the website of the Bukowski Agency)

Have any of you read it? Care to comment?

One day I will meet Dr Afua Cooper, historian, poet, author, and I will ask her whether she was one of the Afuas in Dr. Nakanyike Musisi’s African History 298 at the University of Toronto in the Fall of 1989.  And if she says yes I will have yet another reason to know that finding my 18 year old self in that class in my first semester at U of T was an amazing stroke of luck.  As a learning experience, from the instructor and the students, incomparable.  I can still see the revelation of the Professor’s hand holding the chalk.

And yes, I know Afua is not an uncommon name! But the dates work too.

IFLS Book Club [2] The source of ideas

Thanks to Lolita for kicking this off (her contribution is here) – here are Sonia’s rather disconnected thoughts on reading this book.


I’m looking forward to hearing from others and trying to sort out how, in the end, I’m going to judge this book.  I found the first bit a strange contrast of fascinating and a hard slog.  Sometimes I longed for less detail (this is a rare request for me to make of a book), particularly in the first 18 chapters (before the Scotts move to St. Louis).  But I was struck by the vivid depictions of certain material realities – particularly, perhaps since I was reading this book during the Toronto spring, the descriptions of the weather.  The ways in which the killing cold affected everyone’s work (the ink freezes, the fire has to be fed every 10 minutes) and made survival a daily concern (see e.g. chapters 6 and 7).    The precarious legal/political/international situation in that frontier region was only a part of the issue.  The constant problems with riverboats – their fragility and non appearance – are another source of setbacks, delays, political problems, personnel absences, and privation.  Yet Fort Snelling/St. Peters Indian Agency were located in the same place as modern Minneapolis-St.Paul, which isn’t a notably “northern” city at all.

The development of Harriet’s ideas about law and justice

I did have one rather specific concern about a major idea in the book, that is, the idea that Harriet’s notion of justice and law was derived from watching the men that she was “owned by” or worked for.  This idea clearly drives the book – it is what justifies the (sometimes painful?) detail about Taliaferro’s activities at the Fort despite the almost complete absence of Harriet from the written record.  Harriet, we are reminded, was in close quarters with him.  She saw and heard almost every aspect of his work.  This is a reasonable source of ideas for her.  And yet the author does not really allude to the possibility of other sources, of critical discussion amongst slaves/servants, of ideas of justice and law derived from other sources, of resistance or mockery of the ideas that Taliaferro claimed to hold and believe in.  This is a point that Lolita makes about the methodology (“One significant critique of micro-history is the extent to which the historian takes license to extrapolate from accounts that may offer little if anything about the subject of the discussion”.)

I was thinking about this too.  It seems clear that Harriet had to be determined to push the case, but just as clear that she was quite detached from the process of litigation.  I suppose what I am asking is, since we are speculating anyway, are there other ways of filling in the gaps in Harriet’s socio-political understanding of the world and of the law?  Knowing details about Taliaferro, we can plausibly speculate about Harriet’s acceptance of his ideas.  Yet this is only because of the blur that surrounds Harriet herself, and indeed the vast majority of the African-Americans that she interacted with.  These people are another possible source of ideas of justice and law.  And in fact, it is clear that the author is setting Harriet’s dogged pursuit of the court case against ideas we might have expected to find amongst African-Americans – that the courts were not a safe or just place.  Otherwise why is she such an outlier or why do we laud her courage (more on this later).   Now, it is clear that Harriet at the Fort was isolated from the larger African-American community she later found in St. Louis.  But the thesis that Harriet gleaned her ideas from Taliaferro seemed, to me, a somewhat unfortunate theme in a book so determined to illustrate a hidden history (not least, I suppose, since I think I’m much more inclined to be suspicious of Taliaferro and his ideals than the author).

Slaves, Servants, Women & Feminism

On that note, I’ll move to another connection that struck me through the first half of Mrs. Dred Scott – with one of Ruthann Robson’s articles, A servant of one’s own: The continuing class struggle in Feminist Legal Theories and Practices.  Robson looks at Virginia Woolf’s reliance on and erasing of the work and life of the women who did the domestic work that her lifestyle depended on.  Robson’s point is one that is more subtle than required for looking at Harriet’s situation, that is, Robson is looking at the way that women function as “masters” of servants and the need for serious class analysis inside feminism.  But the detail that VanderVelde offers about the life of a servant/slave on the frontier was something I did find riveting – especially since the frontier is a region in which we are accustomed to seeing the trope of “self sufficiency” raised again and again.  The constant reference to how hard life is by the literate characters in the story sits oddly beside the even worse conditions experienced by those who could not write and left no direct testimony about their experience. Incidentally, I found the seemingly interchangeable use of these words in the early chapters disconcerting, although my colleague Kate Sutherland tells me there’s a long and racialised story behind what words were used to refer to paid domestic help and those “owned” under systems of chattel slavery.   Relationships between Harriet and her mistresses displayed no apparent gender solidarity (there is a very brief mention of the possibility that the limited number of women at the agency/fort and the isolation of winter might have induced Mrs. Taliaferro to share confidences with Harriet Scott (see Chapter 7), but this is speculative.  In addition, it seems to be based on a model in which the slave/servant “provides” the mistress with companionship – the nature of these “personal attachments” requires significant scrutiny, and that requires evidence.  For the most part, race and class seem to have been effective in cutting off any real communication.  But this might also be partly an artifact of the available evidence.  Eliza Dillon Taliaferro left no letters  (see here for a short article on her life).  However, it is true that the white women in the story do not appear to have much agency at all, particularly the well off white women – on paper, they are almost completely controlled by fathers, brothers, brothers in law and the like.  In addition, their pursuits seem so petty compared to the ruling class men (building a nation) and the servants (scrabbling survival).  They need husbands, parties, teas, social standing.  Their position doesn’t get the sympathy, as I read it, that Taliaferro gets as he struggles to “protect” the Indians.

This issue is of course one taken up with far more sensitivity, grace and research than I’ve offered here by many scholars, as a theoretical point (in terms of Black and other racialised women’s resistance to mainstream feminism), a historical point (excavating the relationships between women servants and slaves and their female owners/mistresses at different points in American history), and a question of legal strategy (how should feminists engage law in situations where class or race interests clearly divide women?).

Racialization on the Frontier

The gradual refinement of white supremacy through more sophisticated and inescapable racialization on the frontier is another area of this work that I found fascinating – all the more so since I recently attended a conference entitled “Our Legacies: Indigenous-African Relations Across the Americas”, which uncovered for me the deep and still relevant relationships between Africans and Indigenous peoples in North and Central America.  There are a few moments in other contexts where this aspect of the historical and contemporary connections have surfaced (again – for me – others are much more aware):

These particular interrelationships can, I think, offer a revealing window into what the imperial/colonial/settler project was and how methods and goals shifted and changed over time.  VanderVelde writes that at the settlement, the cultural distinction mattered more than racial distinctions, so that it was Indians who were “outside” (Chapter 31) – a sharp contrast to the picture painted by Taney’s decision in the Dred Scott case.  This aspect was so intriguing that by the end of the book, the thread I most want to follow is that of the “African-Ojibwa” Bonga family – Métis fur traders, at least one of whom described himself as “white”.

The connections between these two groups include the clear disconnect in the minds of the colonial authorities: Taliaferro’s interest (which was professional, certainly, and possibly went beyond that) in the welfare of the indigenous people in the area sits uneasily beside his seeming total lack of interest in two slave women who actually lived in his household.  Highlighting this aspect of the story, I think, brings me back to Robson’s arguments in her article noted above.  We do this – at least, I do this.   I spend my professional life claiming in various ways that I am interested in some aspects of injustice, but I have to be careful to be, and often fail to be, attentive to those injustices which most directly support my own way of life.

Access to Justice, Ethics and Relationships with Clients

So here are two last thoughts that people might be interested in.  One, access to justice.  This is such an intriguing part of this book.  The Scotts have so much help in getting their case to the Supreme Court but on the other hand their lawyers seem to really let them down. Whether or not Harriet or Dred knew what was happening in the case, it does seem clear that their lawyers were not corresponding with them or visiting them or otherwise letting them know what was happening, and it made me wonder about how we might analyse the legal ethics of their lawyers, and more broadly how this case might relate to other concerns over “test case litigation” and the position of the claimants.  Doing a course on ethical and social issues in test case litigation has long been on my back-back-back-burner, and exploring the work of these lawyers and their relations with clients (as opposed to causes) might be interesting.


Here’s the last point: are litigants in test cases always courageous? Why do we use this word?  VanderVelde calls Harriet Scott courageous and there’s absolutely no argument from me there.  The woman experienced a life of privation and hardship in which daily survival was often at stake and freedom often denied – like many, but not all, did in those places and times.   But does her participation in the lawsuit render her courageous?  I was thinking about Viola Desmond, an African-Canadian woman who challenged racism in the courts of 1950’s Nova Scotia.  Like Harriet Scott, Viola Desmond lost.  She lost in what we might think of as a typically Canadian way.  There was no judgment like Taney’s, bluntly expounding white supremacy.  Instead, the Courts just refused to deal with the issue of racism that Desmond was trying to raise.  For a wonderfully detailed history of this case, including information about Desmond’s life, see this article by Canadian legal historian Constance Backhouse.  A less detailed, beautifully illustrated,  book aimed at children is also available.  I am not suggesting here that it isn’t interesting or important to look into the lives of these litigants, both to illuminate the case and the historical setting.  But I think the notion of courage is interesting in these cases. Is it entering the lion’s den – the courthouse – that makes them courageous? Is it about “the courage of their convictions”? Exposing themselves as a target of all those who disagree with their case? In Harriet’s case, certainly part of the issue must be giving up the chance, although VanderVelde is clear that it wasn’t a great chance, to quietly disappear as another way of seeking freedom.  I’m intrigued by the idea that being a litigant is, in many cases, in and of itself, a display of courage and resistance – speaking a truth to power, I suppose.  But in other cases, it is the opposite.  Mr. San(d)ford, for instance, kept fighting the case, but he wasn’t courageous.  For one thing, he was obviously privileged (wealthy, white, male).  He was also, in history’s current conclusion, wrong.  So courage it isn’t about courts, law, or persistence.  It’s just a judgment of history.  VanderVelde’s book puts much more on the table for our consideration of Harriet Scott, and I think that it lays clear just how against her the odds were and how courageous such a woman would have to be – even without the court case.


And lest I leave the impression that I didn’t like the book, I did. It made me think, and that’s what I want from every book.  It wasn’t the most enjoyable read, though, I admit it.  This is where the book club is coming in handy for me, since I can analyse that conclusion in these exchanges.  So come on, book club friends, finish it up – if you’re struggling through, remember, the next one is going to be a novel, a mystery novel…..