Man at computer

April 3, 2008
Contact: James David Moran
(508) 471-2131 (office)
(508) 248-4694 (home)
(508) 783-5085 (cell) (e-mail)

Dred Scott free again on Common-place

Worcester, MA—On March 6, 1857, in the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Dred, Harriet, and their daughters Eliza and Lizzie would remain slaves. Chief Justice Taney's ruling that slaves were property and as such had no rights, enraged the North and was a major cause of the Civil War.

In May 2007, on the 150th anniversary of the Scott family's emancipation— granted just three months after the court's decision—descendents and city council members celebrated together as the street outside the Old Courthouse in St. Louis where his case was first heard was renamed Dred Scott Way.

Adam Arenson's article "Freeing Dred Scott" in the April 2008 issue of Common-place, the online history journal, traces the years between the two events when the memory of Dred Scott, the former slave, faded and was distorted. At his death the New York Times obituary noted: "Few men who have achieved greatness have won it so effectually as this black champion."

By the turn of the century, however, all sorts of falsehoods were put forth about Dred Scott. His entry in the 1935 Dictionary of American Biography described him as "shiftless and unreliable, and therefore frequently unemployed and without means to support his family."

Arenson notes that although the Dred Scott case is universally known, "for over a century, the Scotts themselves were little noted by the political and legal theorists who debated the case. The details of their lives were forgotten even in St. Louis, where they struck out for freedom. He adds that, 150 years later, the Scott family has been recovered, thanks to the actions of their descendents, African American leaders, activists, and historians, all determined to see Dred Scott and his family remembered in St. Louis and the nation.

The first person to experience that ubiquitous institution of American life: fifteen minutes of fame, is the topic of Amanda Bowie Moniz' article, "A Radical Shrew in America." Mary Wilkes Hayley was the sister of John Wilkes, hero to the American revolutionaries for his campaign in England challenging general warrants. Wilkes corresponded with the Sons of Liberty and spoke on the colonists' behalf in Parliament.

In 1784 Wilkes' wealthy sister arrived in Boston, Moniz writes, "an enlightened friend of the new republic." During her sojourn, Hayley funded a variety of public and charitable projects and notably was a founding member of the Massachusetts Humane Society. Newspapers praised her as "the friend of civil liberty" and "a patroness of the arts . . ." Hayley's celebrity came undone when she married a merchant 20 years her junior and her fortune automatically became his property. Within two years the marriage failed and she returned to England.

Moniz notes that the independent-minded, culturally sophisticated, indomitable woman quickly gave way to a very different one who sacrificed her wealth and celebrity for a dubious marriage. Her detachment from this fundamental fact of Anglo-American life cost Mrs. Hayley her reputation. "Had she been more strategic about her marriage, more willing to place financial self-interest before marital fantasy, she might have endured as one of the young republic's great icons," Moniz concludes.

Leslie Stainton's article, "Players," tells the story of Edwin Booth, actor and brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth. He and other nineteenth-century American stage players "moved from theater to theater along a route hewn by fellow players who couldn't afford to go home, or didn't know how, or had no home." These actors "brought thrills to people across the country who were starved for entertainment and supplied a new nation with the mythic figures it needed," Stainton writes.

After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Booth's career advanced due to the public's morbid curiosity. "Although few would have admitted it, most people who went to see Edwin Booth perform went to see his brother, too, to see the specter of Lincoln's killer," Stainton writes. "For the rest of his career this was part of Edwin's mystique, and he knew it."

In the last years of his life Booth built a home for actors, The Players, on Gramercy Park in New York City. He wanted performers to have a place to convene and be treated with respect.

This issue of Common-place introduces a new blog, "Lampi's Election Notes," featuring commentary on the progress and findings of the groundbreaking project "A New Nation Votes: American Election Returns, 1787-1825."

The project is co-sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is a searchable collection of election returns from the earliest years of American democracy, based on data compiled by Philip Lampi of AAS. The fully searchable database of election results (still in progress) can be found at

In Common Reading, David M. Henkin's "Reading our E-mail" refutes the notion that e-mail is burying the personal letter. To the contrary, Henkin notes, "If e-mail has indeed changed our habits of communication... we should interpret the shift as a revival of epistolarity rather than its death knell.

Henkin notes parallels between e-mail and the extensive correspondence that dominated the nineteenth century. "Our electronic missives certainly leave different sorts of unintended traces in everyday life and on the historical record than the paper letters currently living in drawers, attics, and archives," he writes, " but are we certain that the anxieties and discussions they provoke are novel?"

Taking a class on civics, according to the high school students of Jim Cullen, who writes in The Common School, "is so retro that it's on the cusp of getting sexy. Cullen's article, "From Hondas to Civics," muses about the reluctance of his civics class students to "make any kind of active value judgments at all."

"The challenge for my students was to move from articulating the limits of other worldviews to articulating the contours of their own," Cullen writes. He concludes that, "we live in an age of globalism, of gumbo, and Honda. But as long as there are people who continue to understand themselves in terms of some larger social category, a searching examination of that notion seems like a good idea."

Writing in Object Lessons, Martin Brückner's "The Material Map" describes the visually beautiful and literary map created by the cartographer Lewis Evans, whose "A General Map of the Middle British Colonies" was one of the first American-made maps approved by critics as different as Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Johnson. This map became a staple reference text consulted by map makers, travelers, authors, and politicians before, during, and after the Revolution. What's more, it was also appealing visually, sold in colored sheets or bound in a pamphlet, and included non-cartographic inserts—lengthy verbal narratives.

Early maps were also decorative. Not only were they framed and hung on walls, spaces such as the study and library required special shelves for storing the rolled sheets of large maps Brückner notes that the Evans map demonstrates "a sensuous understanding of cartography in which maps become prized objects vital to the experience of early American material life."

In Lessons from the Vault, Douglas Shadle's "Alive with the Sound of Music" recounts how he digitized the manuscripts of nineteenth century Philadelphia composer William Henry Fry. Next to Stephen Foster, Fry was arguably the most important American composer working before the Civil War. Beginning in the mid-1830s, Fry and his brothers composed and wrote the words for three full-length operas and produced a translation for a fourth.

Shadle used electronic notation software to transcribe pages from Fry's manuscripts into his laptop, attached a speaker to his computer and heard Fry's music for the first time in nearly a century and a half. In a passage from Fry's opera, "Santa Claus," Shadle found a beautiful orchestral arrangement of the carol, "Adeste Fideles," placed in an everyday context and musically transformed into a representation of one of history's greatest miracles, the birth of Christ. Shadle concludes: "I would be hard pressed to think of a better way to valorize the American 'democratic spirit' and to show an audience the true value of 'the everyday' than this."

Psychoanalysis is getting popular again, writes Edward Gray, in Talk of the Past's "Making the Irregular Regular." Gray predicts a revival of the "history profession's most troubled methodological adventures: the application of psychoanalytic techniques to the psyches of the long dead." Gray points to the newly popular cable tv series, In Treatment with its psychoanalyst, "flawed, confused, cowering, obsessive, and endlessly endearing character, the sort of father figure classical Freudians never really grasped but modern Americans will find all too familiar." Perhaps, if in fact psychoanalysis has lost its menacing airs, Gray opines, writers of history will once again find worthy subject matter in the inner lives of their subjects.

In Ask the Author, Harvey Green, professor of history, author and master woodworker, reflects on the ways his craft shapes his practice as historian and vice versa. "Writing has taught me to let my elaborate plans and calculations ease their grip and let the tools flow" Green writes.

- more -

"Contending with the physical characteristics of various woods and the way they respond to machines and the hand has also helped clarify how I think about history."

The current issue of Common-place also contains the following book reviews: Charles Rappleye's Sons of Providence by Erik J. Chaput; Erik Jay Dolin's Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America by Mark A. Nicholas; Karen Ordahl Kupperman's The Jamestown Project by Michael Leroy Oberg; Edward J. Larson's A Magnificent Catastrophe by J.M. Opal; and Nancy Isenberg's Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Herbert Sloan.

About Common-place

Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks—and listens—to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900. Common-place readers can join in the discussion of any of the journal's features by visiting the "Common-place Coffeeshop," a message board on the website. Common-place is sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the Florida State University Department of History.

About the American Antiquarian Society

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is a learned society and independent research library, specializing in all aspects of American history and culture through 1876. Founded in 1812 by the patriot printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas, AAS is the third oldest historical organization in the United States and the first to take the whole nation as its scope. The AAS library is the preeminent repository of pre-twentieth-century American printed materials and related manuscript and graphic arts materials in the world. The Society also sponsors an array of programs to encourage the use of its collections and to foster a greater understanding of American history. The main office for Common-place is at AAS, 185 Salisbury St., Worcester, MA 01609-1634; telephone (508) 755-5221.

Back to Virtual Press Kit

Copyright © Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Inc., all rights reserved