Mrs. Dred Scott

90 Pages Posted: 23 Feb 2015 Last revised: 5 Mar 2015

See all articles by Lea S. VanderVelde

Lea S. VanderVelde

University of Iowa - College of Law

Sandhya Subramanian

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

Date Written: February 20, 2015


This article argues that Harriet Robinson Scott's significance as co-plaintiff in Dred Scott v. Sanford has been overlooked for generations, in part because her status was a contradiction. Recognizing her existence, however, explains the incongruities that this particular case represents, if one focuses only on the factual record about her husband and the motivations implied from that record.

Harriet was the wife of a slave. Analytically, Harriet's existence, as doubly subordinated, through the institution of marriage and the institution of slavery, demonstrates the paradox of married and enslaved women. Marriage was conventionally seen to be legally inconsistent with the status of slavery. A wife would be a dependent, and a slave could have no dependents. This double subordination explains why she is so little known and why the case was litigated under her husband's name.

The article is compensatory legal history, both in adding into the equation a long neglected party, and in providing rationale for the sustained lawsuit. This article sheds light on the motives behind the Scotts’ suit for freedom and addresses questions that have long plagued scholars such as why Dred didn't sue sooner or escape to free territory. Harriet was in all likelihood the cornerstone of the litigation.

This article offers a reassessment of the Dred Scott decision. Lea VanderVelde followed this article with a full-scale biography of Harriet in the book, MRS. DRED SCOTT: A LIFE ON SLAVERY's FRONTIER (Oxford 2009). This article is completely distinct from the book.

Keywords: feminist history, constitutional history, intersection of race and gender, husband and wife, master and slave, coverture, legal history, constitutional law, leading constitutional cases, subordination principles

Suggested Citation

VanderVelde, Lea S. and Subramanian, Sandhya, Mrs. Dred Scott (February 20, 2015). 106 Yale L.J. 1033 (1997), Available at SSRN:

Lea S. VanderVelde (Contact Author)

University of Iowa - College of Law ( email )

Melrose and Byington
Iowa City, IA 52242
United States

Sandhya Subramanian

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

United States

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