SLAVERY, LAW, AND POLITICS: The Dred Scott Case in Historical Perspective by Don E. Fehrenbacher

SLAVERY, LAW, AND POLITICS: The Dred Scott Case in Historical Perspective

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Briefer is often better, and readers who found Stamford professor Fehrenbacher's Dred Scott Case (1978) overlong will find this abridged version a better book. To cut the original Pulitzer prize-winning text by half, Fehrenbacher has excised many clumsy passages and bulky charts. The essence of the work is here; the conclusions stand out more boldly; the work remains a feat of scholarship; a fundamental flaw, though muted, remains too. Shortened but otherwise unrevised are the discussions of slavery, the Constitution, and the bitter controversy over whether slavery should be allowed in the western territories. Here again is Fehrenbacher's analysis of the Dred Scott decision (in which Chief Justice Taney ruled that blacks were not citizens and that Congress could not ban slavery from the territories) and his demonstration that Taney was dramatically extending the Supreme Court's influence and authority. While this is an abridgment and not a popularization, Fehrenbacher has tried to clarify his work by rewriting several passages, particularly those in which Taney's momentous opinion is analyzed. He has eliminated the original text's rhetorical excesses, so that, for example, sentences in which Taney's opinions are called ""outrageous,"" ""gross,"" and ""astonishing"" have been taken out, and a sentence speaking of Taney's ""unpleasant clause"" appears in the abridgment with ""unpleasant"" discreetly dropped. The effect is to make Fehrenbacher seem less indignant, less partisan in his assessment of Taney's ruling; but such cosmetic changes cannot mask the contentiousness underlying Fehrenbacher's analysis. The abridged version still treats the reader to the curious spectacle of a living historian, equipped with a knowledge of history unavailable to the generation of the 1850s, ridiculing an interpretation of history employed by Taney in 1857 and calling aspects of Taney's decision ""meandering,"" ""misleading,"" and ""bizarre."" It mars a valuable study.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1981
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press