Book Report: Dred Scott’s Advocate

Published February 28, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros


It’s taken me a long time, due to various things (mostly class-related), but I’ve finally gotten through Challenge #10 “Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location.”


Yeah, that’s the biggest file size Goodreads had for the cover image.  (Not a well-traversed page.)  Since the image is so small, I’ll spell out that it reads Dred Scott’s Advocate:  A Biography of Roswell M. Field, by Kenneth C. Kaufman.

Obscure choice, yes.  But I’m doing my final project this semester on the Dred Scott case, and this makes for an interesting perspective.  And although it’s twenty years old (1996, so technically 21), it’s still much more recent than the book my professor recommended, which is from 1978.  (Because that’s obviously at the forefront of the most recent research…)

Anyway, Roswell Field is one of the several lawyers who represented Dred and Harriet Scott in their freedom suit, an unnecessarily complicated process that took eleven years and ultimately failed.  (Normally, freedom cases like the Scotts’ were an open and shut affair, and they should have been released after their first court date. )  Field is often — and certainly within this book — credited with coming up with many, if not most or all, of the later approaches that took the case all the way to the US Supreme Court, and as such, it’s interesting to see how his background and earlier life may have led into the way he handled the case.

But to back up a minute, you may be wondering why not read a biography of Dred Scott himself?

The short answer is that we don’t really know all that much about him.

Kaufman goes into some detail about this early on, and returns to the theme a couple of times across the course of the book — which comes about as close as one can get to a biography of Scott as well as Field.  As anyone knows who’s studied any history in depth, the historian is limited to the sources that exist.  It’s not the old chestnut “history is written by the winners,” but more accurately, “history is written by those who control the pens.”  (And yes, sometimes that means “the winners,” but it’s much more complicated than that.)  The white men (and yes, it was almost exclusively men) who were in charge of the newspapers, magazines and other literature of the day had no interest in writing the life story of a slave; they didn’t even pay attention to Scott’s case until it reached the Supreme Court, by which time it had taken on a very different political meaning, and the Scotts themselves had practically become footnotes in their own court case.  Personal letters survive from various sources of the period (and here there are female voices mixed in among the male, but they remain white), but if any survive that contain any truly illuminating information about Scott, they hadn’t been discovered yet when Kaufman was writing.  Dred Scott was illiterate, so he couldn’t write his own autobiography, the way Frederick Douglass did.  There was one document produced, a twelve-page pamphlet, that alleged to be his tale told in his words.  This comes up late in the book, because it was published as his case was being prepared for the Supreme Court, in the hopes of drumming up some money among Northerners and abolitionists everywhere to pay for his Washington representation.  (Due to the difficulty of travel in the 1850s, it was not unusual for a different lawyer to represent the case before the Supreme Court.  Likewise, the Scotts remained in St. Louis during the Supreme Court case as well.)  So this untitled pamphlet claimed to be him narrating his own life story, but no one is entirely sure if it really was, or if one of his lawyers wrote it for him.  It’s impossible to know now, because the last known copy was reported missing from the collection that housed it in 1988; all that survives are large quotes in a book written in 1921.  Those and what little white people deigned to say about him at the time, which ranged from the usual insults (“stupid” and “lazy”) to the blandly unhelpful (“affable”).  As Kaufman points out towards the end, whatever Dred Scott was like, he seemed to have been well liked by a number of wealthy and important white men of St. Louis — many of them lawyers, and some of them slave-owners.  And we know even less about Harriet Scott, though Kaufman did present the intriguing theory that initiating the freedom suit in the first place might have been her idea.  (Over the years, the idea has been attributed to several of the lawyers — and was claimed by a lawyer who didn’t even arrive in St. Louis until the case had already been going for ten years — but somehow historians seem reluctant to assume that Dred Scott himself thought of the idea of attempting to gain his freedom.  I’m much more ready to believe it was his wife’s idea than to imagine a white man put the idea in his head for political reasons.  Especially since the political landscape was only just beginning to change when the first suit was filed.)

Shifting gears away from the history a bit and back to the book under discussion, because the book has multiple focuses — Field’s life, the ongoing developments in Scott’s life and desire for freedom, the increasingly stormy political state in America at the time — there are times that it sometimes feels like it’s strayed off topic, because there are just so many topics.  I think Kaufman did a good job pulling together a lot of very disparate research, however.  (Even if I didn’t always understand some of the more technical legal issues.  I don’t even know modern legal technicalities, let alone mid-19th century legal technicalities.)

Dred Scott’s Advocate is a polished and published doctoral thesis, so it’s obviously deeply scholarly, but it’s still quite readable (though sometimes the footnotes can span half a page), and doesn’t presume too much foreknowledge about the issues under discussion.  (Though it might have benefited from a map or two in some of the discussions of the free and slave territories.)

In sum, if you’re interested in getting a solid historical overview of the events surrounding the case and how the Supreme Court’s decision (often called both the most controversial and the worst decision the Supreme Court has ever made) led to Lincoln’s election to the Presidency (though the latter is mostly just in the epilogue), you might want to look into this.  But if you’re looking for a light or fictionalized account, probably not.  I know there is at least one novel about Dred Scott, called Speak Right On, but the title is literally the only thing I know about it.  (I could look up the author’s name, but I’m currently rather sick, and thus feeling even more lazy than usual.  I think I’ve been very coherent for someone who’s sick as a dog and suffering from cramps, actually.)

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