Haunted by History’s Ghostly Gaps: A Literary Critique of the Dred Scott Decision and Its Historical Treatments
The Georgetown Journal of Law and Modern Critical Race Perspectives, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2009
37 Pages Posted: 3 Mar 2010 Last revised: 2 Aug 2013
Date Written: March 1, 2010
In his opinion for the majority, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney eliminates Dred Scott the man from the text and divests Scott of a body, thereby transforming him into a sort of incorporeal ghost that signals the traces and tropes of slavery. Subsequent historians, journalists, and politicians have made Scott even more inaccessible by either relying on Taney’s text, which erases Scott, or by failing to recover Scott’s narrative. Taney’s opinion codified “the facts” of the case as official or authoritative despite a lack of reference to their human subject. Later writers relied on this received version despite its obvious gaps. In order to reconstruct Scott - to “recorporealize” him, so to speak - one must turn to the original Missouri court documents, the earliest and most detailed accounts of Scott available. This article considers these documents in conjunction with a particular N.Y. Times article, which seems to confirm that Irene Emerson, whom Scott sued, was not involved with Scott as a co-conspirator. This article also shows how historians, forced to imagine or allegorize Scott’s history, treated Scott as a ghost whose incomplete form was synecdochic of slavery itself. Their treatments inadvertently employ literary devices common in Gothic literature - allegory, the fantastic, confusion of the known and unknown - moving Gothicism beyond the bounds of genre and launching it from symbolic expression to actual historiography. The current version of Scott the man “signifies” very little - i.e., has no clear referent - and so Scott remains hauntingly absent, even ghostlike, in American memory.
Keywords: Dred Scott, Legal Theory, Roger B. Taney, Literary Theory, Jurisprudence
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