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Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott

Overview


The Dred Scott case is the most notorious example of slaves suing for freedom. Most examinations of the case focus on its notorious verdict, and the repercussions that the decision set off-especially the worsening of the sectional crisis that would eventually lead to the Civil War-were extreme. In conventional assessment, a slave losing a lawsuit against his master seems unremarkable. But in fact, that case was just one of many freedom suits brought by slaves in the antebellum period; an example of slaves ...
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Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott

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Overview


The Dred Scott case is the most notorious example of slaves suing for freedom. Most examinations of the case focus on its notorious verdict, and the repercussions that the decision set off-especially the worsening of the sectional crisis that would eventually lead to the Civil War-were extreme. In conventional assessment, a slave losing a lawsuit against his master seems unremarkable. But in fact, that case was just one of many freedom suits brought by slaves in the antebellum period; an example of slaves working within the confines of the U.S. legal system (and defying their masters in the process) in an attempt to win the ultimate prize: their freedom. And until Dred Scott, the St. Louis courts adhered to the rule of law to serve justice by recognizing the legal rights of the least well-off.

For over a decade, legal scholar Lea VanderVelde has been building and examining a collection of more than 300 newly discovered freedom suits in St. Louis. In Redemption Songs, VanderVelde describes twelve of these never-before analyzed cases in close detail. Through these remarkable accounts, she takes readers beyond the narrative of the Dred Scott case to weave a diverse tapestry of freedom suits and slave lives on the frontier. By grounding this research in St. Louis, a city defined by the Antebellum frontier, VanderVelde reveals the unique circumstances surrounding the institution of slavery in westward expansion. Her investigation shows the enormous degree of variation among the individual litigants in the lives that lead to their decision to file suit for freedom. Although Dred Scott's loss is the most widely remembered, over 100 of the 300 St. Louis cases that went to court resulted in the plaintiff's emancipation.

Beyond the successful outcomes, the very existence of these freedom suits helped to reshape the parameters of American slavery in the nation's expansion. Thanks to VanderVelde's thorough and original research, we can hear for the first time the vivid stories of a seemingly powerless group who chose to use a legal system that was so often arrayed against them in their fight for freedom from slavery.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
06/30/2014
Between 1800 and 1850, slaves seeking their freedom brought roughly 300 suits into U.S. courts. VanderVelde, a law professor at the University of Iowa, mines these remarkable stories for an enlightening history of the relationship between master and slave and the intersection of slavery and law in 19th-century America. Slaves litigating for their freedom employed five legal theories : that the slave was a Native American who could not be enslaved under U.S. law, the slave was in fact a free person, the slave had a valid completed contract with the master to grant him or her freedom, the slave resided in free territory or his or her mother was a resident of free territory, or the slave had a legally cognizable reason for the state to override his or her master's wishes. VanderVelde tells the story of courageous individual slaves, their families, and their communities that propelled the struggle for freedom. Based on testimony and court records, the detailed and dramatic stories are filled with conspiracies, kidnappings and rescues, legal conundrums, and betrayals. VanderVelde's writing is matter-of-fact, almost at odds with the drama of the stories she relates, but the stories themselves make for compulsive reading. (June)
From the Publisher

"VanderVelde makes palpable the bravery and fortitude of the men and women who sought freedom for themselves and their families." --Kirkus

"A landmark volume in our understanding of the law of slavery. VanderVelde's Redemption Songs is the indispensable capstone to almost two decades of pathbreaking research." --John Fabian Witt, author of Lincoln's Code

"Carefully examining recently unearthed court documents, census records, and much more, Lea VanderVelde constructs a nuanced portrait of slavery and freedom in the antebellum West. This is an important contribution to our understanding of slavery and its legal history." --Mark Tushnet, Harvard Law School

"Lea VanderVelde's Redemption Songs is a stunning account of the efforts of ordinary African Americans to secure freedom through the courts. In graceful prose, VanderVelde highlights the surprising promise of freedom suits but also the staggering toll the effort took on those who turned to them. Recovering the voices of those long thought voiceless, VanderVelde tells even experts things we did not know. Equally important, she brings to life things we know in theory." --Michael Les Benedict, Ohio State University

Library Journal
11/01/2014
. $29.95. LAWA history of more than 300 freedom lawsuits—many of which were successful—filed in St. Louis before the famous 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision.
Kirkus Reviews
2014-05-06
The history of how slaves successfully sued for freedom.The infamous 1857 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford reversed lower courts' decisions and denied long-sought freedom to Scott, a slave. Vehement protest over the ruling contributed to the beginnings of the Civil War. In researching that case for her biography of Scott's wife, VanderVelde (Law/Univ. of Iowa; Mrs. Dred Scott, 2009) discovered a trove of 300 court files in St. Louis, in which 239 litigants petitioned for emancipation. Defended by court-appointed lawyers, more than 100 of the plaintiffs won. How, wondered the author, did slaves learn that they could sue? What factors determined the outcome? Her meticulous research informs this illuminating history of a dozen of those cases. Claims for freedom, she found, could be supported on several grounds. Some petitioners claimed that they were free but were mistakenly taken as slaves. Surprising to VanderVelde, only three cases involved sexual exploitation, suggesting that such claims may have been suppressed. The largest claims, however, were based on residence in a free territory. According to the law at the time, any slave living on—or born in—free soil automatically was legally free. With national expansion in full force, some slave owners brought their slaves through free states north of the Ohio River on their way west; if they stayed in those states long enough, slaves were emancipated, even after they were taken elsewhere. VanderVelde makes palpable the bravery and fortitude of the men and women who sought freedom for themselves and their families. Sometimes, the suit was quick and uncomplicated, but many cases dragged on, and some owners defied the courts by kidnapping their former slaves. Slaves that had been handed down to new owners found themselves confronted by the complication over whom to sue.The voices of petitioners, rescued from court annals, testify to a defiant struggle for freedom, empowerment and dignity.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199927296
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 10/9/2014
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 626,764
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Lea VanderVelde is Professor of Law at the University of Iowa and author of Mrs. Dred Scott.

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Table of Contents

1. Intro/Metaphor
2. Peter's Dual Redemption
3. The Three Daughters of Marie Scypion
4. Winny and Her Children: Freedom by Residence
5. The Kidnap of Lydia's Children
6. John Merry also known as Jean Marie: Birthright Freedom
7. David Shipman
8. The Duncan Brothers: Black and White
9. Leah Charleville: Working It
10. Sex and Servitude
11. Yours Truly, Lucy Delaney
12. The Slaves of Milton Duty: Redeeming a Promise Made
13. Canadienne Rose: Were There Slaves in Canada?
14. The Final Chapter

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