Lea VanderVelde, Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scot, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. 320. $29.95 cloth (ISBN: 9780199927296).

  • Martha S. Jones
  • Law and History Review, October 2015, Cambridge University Press
  • DOI: 10.1017/s0738248015000528

Review of Redemption Songs

What is it about?

Redemption Songs fits well into a trend that we can term thinking beyond red Scott. What happens when historians of slavery, race, and law undertake research that extends beyond that case’s characters, narrative, doctrine, and reception? One answer lies in the freedom suits that archivists have identified in the very same St. Louis courthouse where Dred Scott was tried. Between 1814 and 1860, as Vandervelde’s bibliography chronicles, dozens of other enslaved people also sued for their liberty. red Scott, we are reminded, was but one contest over slavery and freedom in antebellum Missouri. More so than in high court proceedings, it was in the local court house of this border state city that the power of slave holders and the parameters of law were put on trial.

Why is it important?

Like VanderVelde, I am working toward a rethinking of the history of slavery and law to get us beyond the Dred Scott case. In my forthcoming book -- Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America -- I argue that Dred Scott is only one salvo in a complex and drawn out debate about black citizenship before the Civil War.

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