Wednesday, October 21, 2009
If You Don't Know about Dred Scott, Read This
I had never heard of Dred Scott before picking up "Am I Not a Man: The Dred Scott Story" by Mark Shurtleff. But as I began reading, it shocked me that I wasn't more familar with this pivotal part of history. Dred Scott was a slave who sued for his freedom all the way to the Supreme Court- and lost. Ironically, his defeat was a gift. It was on the wave of his failure that a little-known politician stepped forward to eventually become the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.
Shurtleff weaves the story by touching on various threads at different times and places that converge together to create the foundation of Dred Scott's case. Raised by a loving liberal southern family, Dred's childhood is one of strength and joy where the bonds of slavery are rarely felt until the Blow family falls on financial difficulty. When he is sold, Dred soon faces the depths of helplessness and great cruelty.
While this well-researched and engaging narrative illustrates Dred's personal struggle, Shurtleff is able to bring in powerful passages from Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass without being heavy-handed. The result is a nice overview of the events leading to election of Abraham Lincoln and the political decisions that preceded the Civil War.
Most shocking of all was the Supreme Court ruling by Chief Justice Taney that black men have "no rights a white man was bound to respect." It would have been easy for Shurtleff to demonize Taney's character, and I was impressed how equitably he dealt with him, trying to honestly portray this man's views and motivations in a much more sympathetic light than I ever would.
To me, the muster of a good book is if it grabs my attention initially, and makes me glad I forfeited the hours reading it long after I close the cover. Although it took a few chapters to get hooked, once I was into the story, I raced through the pages with fascination. It still amazes me that Dred's childhood owners were the ones who tried to free him by attempting to purchase him before turning to legal venues. In the end, the courts never did declare Dred Scott free during his lifteime, but he found freedom nonetheless.
Having put the book down, I have to say I'm glad I read it. A little freaked out by the Supreme Court (I guess that hasn't changed much), but glad nonetheless. When I heard the author was a previous Attorney General, I was worried Shurtleff's prose would be dry and stuffy, but I couldn't have been more wrong. It was bright, fast-paced, informative and entertaining. Best of all, I now know who Dred Scott is and better understand the sacrifice that allows me to enjoy the freedoms I sometimes take for granted.