Lea VanderVelde: Another Anniversary for the Overlooked Mrs. Dred Scott

Roundup: Talking About History

Lea VanderVelde is Josephine Witte professor of law at the University of Iowa, Guggenheim fellow in Constitutional Studies, and author of “Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier,” published by Oxford University Press. Her next book, “Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom,” will appear later this year, also published by Oxford.

Today, April 6, marks an anniversary of the legal filing that became one of the most divisive cases in the history of the US Supreme Court. Controversy over recent court debates – Obamacare or strip searches, for instance – pale in comparison.

The case in question is Dred Scott vs. Sanford, which many historians credit with the ruling that sent the nation reeling into the Civil War. With the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court determined that African-Americans were inherently slaves. Dred’s name remains well known today. Lost, though, is the story of his wife, Harriet, a common woman of considerable gumption, who was devoted to her family and whose commitment gives the case its greater meaning.

Americans owe her recognition and respect for her perseverance in the 11-year court battle that lit the spark for profound constitutional reform. She should be considered a Founding Mother, as her desire to give freedom to her daughters eventually led to freedom for so many Americans. Her example should instruct the hearts of freedom-lovers today....

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