Tag Archives: Sonia Lawrence

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…..