African-American History in our American Trials Collection, #5

September 20, 2008

The sesquicentennial of the infamous Dred Scott decision was marked in 2007. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that slaves were property and not citizens; they could not bring suit in federal court; and because slaves were private property, the federal government could not revoke a slave owner’s right to own a slave based on where he lived. The decision threatened to open U.S. territories to slavery, and was one of the preludes to the Civil War.

The decision itself was published in several editions, and is widely accessible. It generated a large amount of pamphlet literature, which is not so accessible. An example from the Yale Law Library’s Rare Book Collection is A Legal Review of the Case of Dred Scott, by John Lowell and Horace Gray. (In 1881 Gray became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice and in 1898 authored a decision that a child born in United States to foreign parents is automatically a citizen of the United States.)

Our copy is inscribed, “Hon. Roger S. Baldwin with the authors’ compliments.” Roger Sherman Baldwin (Yale 1845) served Connecticut as governor and U.S. Senator, and was one of the attorneys who defended the African captives in the Amistad case. It was one of thousands of volumes donated to the Yale Law Library by his son, Simeon E. Baldwin (Yale 1861), one of the most outstanding professors in the history of the Yale Law School. The inscription illustrates how pamphlets like this one were part of the information networks among anti-slavery lawyers and activists.

For more information, see the Wikipedia articles on Roger Sherman Baldwin and Simeon E. Baldwin, and the accompanying links. There are a number of excellent websites on the Dred Scott decision. An excellent starting place is the Library of Congress Web Guide on Dred Scott v. Sandford.


Rare Book Librarian

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