Tag Archives: legal history

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.

IFLS Book Club [1] Lolita Buckner-Inniss on Mrs. Dred Scott—a genre bender?

Here are Dr. Lolita Buckner-Inniss’s opening thoughts for our inaugural book club pick.  I’ve had the pleasure of knowing her since – well, somewhere between five and ten years, shockingly.  I once described Lolita as a “natural” scholar, but I think that diminishes her incredible appetite for reading and also minimizes the way that she works hard not to scare people with her intellect.  She’s also one of those relatively rare American scholars with a deep interest in Canadian law. Here’s her Faculty page at CSU-Marshall, and she blogs at “Ain’t I a Feminist Legal Scholar Too? (often x-posting to Feminist Law Professors).  Many thanks to Lolita for starting this party – without further ado:

Dr. Lolita Buckner-Inniss:

Lea VanderVelde’s Mrs. Dred Scott —a genre bender?

There are many ways of writing about history. Three somewhat related genres within the larger historical enterprise are non-fiction history, historicized fiction and fictionalized history. Mrs. Dred Scot, to my read, manages to fall somewhere in the interstices of all three of these. It is clearly based on real people who lived, including Harriet Robinson Scott, her husband Etheldred (better known as Dred), and the various historical figures who surround them, and so in this regard it has a claim to the label of non-fiction history. There is also a recounting of real life events, such as the signing of aboriginal treaties and the settling of formerly aboriginal lands by white Americans. The events, in fact, are researched in admirable detail, as are several of the historical figures discussed. The book also, however, resembles in some ways an historicized fiction in that it relies upon documented events and people within a clear historical context but ornately colors in gaps in the historical narrative with assumptions, speculations, and probabilities. Finally, because the main character of the book, Harriet, lives at the margins of the events and in the historic shadows of some better known figures, including her husband Dred, one might also view the book as a fictionalized history in which Harriet has been given centrality or importance as a key figure in a story that up until this telling assiduously excluded her. Harriet creates for the reader a kind of relational intimacy between Dred and the larger tableau of slavery in the Western territories of the United States.

The problem of genre may, I suppose, be resolved by viewing this book as a work of micro-history that looks just outside of the center of the story of Dred Scott in much the same way that a viewer of a painting or photograph looks outside of the center of the intended visual frame to gain a new perspective on the entire image. Harriet is an historical figure whose role in making law and making history is perhaps just as large as (or larger than) her husband’s, though it is his name that is remembered. For at least four decades historians have acknowledged the important role of micro-history, giving historiographic attention to smaller events and unknown or little known persons as a way of illuminating larger trends. Because lesser known people and events often leave little trace of themselves, one of the significant challenges of micro-history is to allow such persons to speak, and to do so in their own voices. Excavating existing materials that memorialize larger events and better-known persons may help to achieve this objective.

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. As such, micro-history may fall short of typical expectations about the objectivity of the non-fiction history genre (though we have long known that most histories, even “official” histories, are anything but objective.) Micro-history may alter the narrow, particularized relationship between the known, the knowable, and the knower that we often posit in such renditions. This is certainly one significant problem that I see in Mrs. Dred Scot. Harriet is too little present for much of the early part of the book, and when she is present, descriptions of her actions or thoughts are tempered by “probably”, as in “Harriet probably saw” and “Harriet probably thought”. (I was so struck with the use of probably that I used Amazon.com’s preview function to count them: according to that search engine, probably occurs 142 times in the text). VanderVelde addresses this word choice in the introduction (p. 5), noting that we have no choice but to speculate on the details of lives that are for the most part unrecorded. Still, I found myself troubled by my early reading; I simply wanted much more information about Harriet that was premised on established facts. I grew more reconciled to the author’s technique as I reached chapters 12 through 14, since those parts focused more directly on the life of Harriet. I suppose that if the choice is between finding Harriet at the speculative margins of recorded history and not finding her at all, I’ll take Harriet at the margins.

Lolita Buckner-Inniss

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New Canadian Legal History Blog

Osgoode graduate student and IFLS member Mary Stokes, along with Professor Jim Phillips of U of Toronto have started a new blog – Canadian Legal History.

On behalf of the Osgoode Society, welcome to the new Canadian Legal History Blog. We are currently running it on blogspot but we hope to move it to the Osgoode Society’s new website when that site gets going this summer. We hope the blog will prove a useful place for the wonderful community of legal historians we have in Canada. It won’t be the place to go to discuss the meaning of the second amendment of the US constitution, or medieval pleading and practice, but we want it to be where we discuss aspects of the unique and exciting legal history of our country. Please send us your news and views!

Mary is a frequent contributor of links to this blog so I look forward to cross posting.