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Before <I>Dred Scott</I>
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Book description

Before Dred Scott draws on the freedom suits filed in the St Louis Circuit Court to construct a groundbreaking history of slavery and legal culture within the American Confluence, a vast region where the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers converge. Formally divided between slave and free territories and states, the American Confluence was nevertheless a site where the borders between slavery and freedom, like the borders within the region itself, were fluid. Such ambiguity produced a radical indeterminacy of status, which, in turn, gave rise to a distinctive legal culture made manifest by the prosecution of hundreds of freedom suits, including the case that ultimately culminated in the landmark United States Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott vs Sandford. Challenging dominant trends in legal history, Before Dred Scott argues that this distinctive legal culture, above all, was defined by ordinary people's remarkable understanding of and appreciation for formal law.


‘Anne Twitty's compact and compelling book prompts us to redraw regional borders and rethink legal cultures. In contrast to the longstanding view of the ‘American Confluence' as a house divided, a place where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers bounded conflicting regimes of slave and free labor, Before Dred Scott forwards an alternative mapping characterized by fluid borders and connected by a common legal culture with remarkably deep roots among diverse populations. The book will not settle arguments about regions and rules of law, but it will provoke some very productive ones.'

Stephen Aron - Robert N. Burr Department Chair, Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles

‘Anne Twitty has brilliantly illuminated a significant chapter in the struggle against slavery - the hundreds of ‘freedom suits' brought by persons invoking the doctrine of ‘once free, always free' to claim that their prior status as free persons invalidated their enslavement. Not all of them succeeded, but Twitty has done more than show what happened in the courtroom. She has given historical presence to the lives of the freedom seekers: to her exhaustive research into their lives she has added a sure-handed and creative touch that makes this book one of the most significant contributions to antislavery scholarship in many years.'

David Konig - Washington University, St Louis

'… Twitty offers fresh insights into the case of the famous slave sojourner from Missouri. … Twitty adds a new layer to our understanding of the complex relationship between slavery and American legal culture.'

Timothy S. Huebner Source: Missouri Historical Review

'Drawing on 282 freedom suits, Twitty seeks to depict how law operated as a contested reality amid the indeterminacy that defined both race and race-based status. Following the maturing historiography moving beyond the black-letter law of statutes and codes, Twitty probes what she describes as a legal culture constructed by everyday interactions. In short, she reaches to law as a lived reality rather than as an inscribed text … enlightening …'

Thomas J. Davis Source: The Journal of American History

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  • Introduction
    pp 1-24


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