Review of Andrew Napolitano’s “Dred Scott’s Revenge” (Chp. 1 “Slavery Comes to the New World”)

Posted: June 29, 2010 by Rick Hogaboam in Book Reviews, Christ & Culture, History, Politics, Slavery, Social Issues
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“Dred Scott’s Revenge: A Legal History of Race and Freedom in America” by Andrew Napolitano (2009). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

A review by Rick Hogaboam for Booksneeze as part of their blogger program.

I rarely read books apart from the topics of theology, Biblical study, etc., but chose to delve into a something that has always interested me: America’s history of race. I recently read “Black and Tan” by Doug Wilson and learned quite a bit. My esteem fro Abraham Lincoln went down several notches. The history books we used in public school never mentioned his racism and abuse of federal power over the states. I guess that history really is written by the victors.

I have respected Judge Andrew Napolitano’s analysis and thought this book would be a fair and judicious presentation of America’s history of race in relation to the 3 branches of government.  He didn’t disappoint. I will offer a review of each chapter, beginning with chapter 1.

Chp. 1- Slavery Comes to the New World

Napolitano notes that slavery was not new to America but was practiced in every major civilization and that the Greeks even thought it was necessary for a prosperous society. At the height of Rome, roughly 1/3 of the population consisted of slaves. Interestingly, Napolitano does note that Roman slaves did participate as equals in certain religious celebrations, no doubt making mention to the Christian faith, “Despite the many horrors that Roman slaves faced, they also participated in family religious worship and seasonal feasts, often socially mingling with their masters and apparent equals” (3).

Here, one can see the powerful influence of the Gospel at work in breaking down barriers. Clearly, the NT speaks to slaves and masters within the institution of slavery. There is much more that can be said about this, which I do not wish to get into in this review, but God clearly intended for both salves and masters to be cognizant of the fact that they both serve a common Master.  The NT also makes clear that the worship gathering is not the place to highlight distinctions between rich and poor, slave and free, etc.  We all gather as those clothed in Christ, sharing a common faith, Lord, baptism. The NT therefore offers a strong critique of those who thought slaves to be ontologically inferior, devoid of their humanity and dignity. This humanity and dignity was restored through the Christian faith in Roman, even while not mandating the dissolution of the institution of slavery.  Clearly, the NT offers a critique of “chattel slavery”, where humans are seen as mere objects of possession, subject to whatever the master should request, whether it be sexual or immoral. Scripture always condemns such a system. Indentured servitude, however, would be more like the system that God would allow, a system of voluntary service for wages, much like how folks work for money today. Of course, there would be contracts that would prohibit folks from choosing another master who would pay more. This, too, is modeled in certain aspects of our modern economy.  I think that the major sport leagues provide an illustration for slavery.

Let’s take Major League Baseball as an example of present-day “slavery”. A player is drafted out of high school or college by a team (master) that owns rights to the player. There are many other nuances which I will leave out for brevity sake. More detailed information can be found here. You will notice that there are exceptions to what I present as the general rule. The player will sign a contract with the team. If the player rejects the team’s offer, they would reenter the draft the following year and will go through the same process.  Once a player signs a contract, they will be under the club’s control for 6 years. There are rules that allow the player to be released if they spent so many years in the minors without major league service time. The player is also paid the major league minimum salary for the first 3 years regardless of performance.  The club still has control of the player for years 4-6, but the player is now given arbitration eligibility, where their salary may reflect their performance compared with what other players are compensated. The team can retain the player and pay the arbitration amount, negotiate a contract before negotiation, trade the player, or release the player if they think it too expensive.

If there is no binding contract beyond 6 years of MLB service, the player may then become a free agent, where they are finally free to offer their services every club and sign a contract of their desire. Hardly anyone sympathizes with these rich millionaires, decrying that they are slaves and unable to access the free market immediately. It is what it is. in the same way, slavery under the boundaries of Scripture, is much more nuanced that folks wish to admit. God imposes capital punishment for the trading of humans.  God never allowed this. I wish that Napolitano spent a bit more time reflecting on Christian interaction with the slavery issues, as it refers the practice in ancient civilizations, but realize his work is redacted.

Napolitano did note in passing that the Reformation came and went and didn’t change anything about human bondage.  I understand his criticism, but would point out that much good did come from the Reformation. Luther and Calvin ministered to some lowly folks and encouraged them that their labors served God’s glory and was their “vocatio dei” (calling of God).  Calvin is sometimes mentioned as instrumental in the “Protestant Work Ethic” which has served the free market so well. If anything, I would say that the Reformation helped plant the seeds of finding dignity in work that empowered the growth of the free market and the dissolving of slavery as we once practiced it.

Napolitano cites Columbus as the initiator of the transatlantic slave trade (think of that at the thanksgiving table this year). Columbus rejoiced that “in the name of the Holy Trinity” he could send as many slaves as could be sold (6). Slavery really exploded with the African continent. The Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator obtained the title to the undiscovered African lands from the Pope in 1441 and thus began the African slave trade. Eventually the Dutch, French, and English joined in to this lucrative business. Fast forwarding, Napolitano praises William Wilberforce and his efforts to abolish the slave trade and then brings the reader to the irony of America. The first English colony of Jamestown, Virginia was founded in 1607 and was proceeded by the arrival of slaves in 1619. The New World was profitable for the slave trade as exports increased. Southern states created laws that would define blacks as slaves, thus establishing the foundation for the growth of our country as cemented on the backs of foreign slaves.

Napolitano notes the irony that is America quite well in the following quote (13):

This is precisely the real irony of American slavery: The colonies brought this ancient evil to the New World, a world that would simultaneously nurture truly revolutionary ideas of individual rights and the antediluvian institution of human bondage at the same time.

  1. Scott Kistler says:

    This looks really interesting, Rick. I’m looking forward to seeing your thoughts on the book as it goes forward.

    Interesting that Lincoln’s racism never came up before Black and Tan. I thought more high schools had been talking about it more over the last few decades. Overall, I’d say he was quite humane in the context of his times; he looked like MLK in comparison to someone like Stephen Douglas. I think that his racism was more of the paternalistic (still sinful) rather than the hateful variety.

    Wilson’s critique of Lincoln and the Civil War as the driving force of the expansion of federal power was quite interesting too, since that critique is rarely found except at the most consistently small-government circles of the conservative movement. It was a concern at the time, though. Now, however, the federal government’s power is so much expanded since the 1800s that people tend to look at the Civil War as the war that freed the slaves (as it did, thankfully) and “the war that made us a nation” (sentimental music playing in the background).

    • “sentimental music playing”. Hilarious!!! I think my high school history teacher was a Lincoln fan, maybe that’s why I didn’t note Lincoln’s racism OR I was more likely tuned out of that discussion.

  2. Joel says:

    You can’t question Lincoln in much of this brain-dead country. He’s an idol.

  3. Scott Kistler says:

    I think it was in “Black and Tan” where Doug Wilson said that Lincoln was a decent man personally and had good characteristics but also presided over a society (the mid-19th-century North) that Wilson felt was on a dangerous path. It was an oversimplified view of the North, in my opinion, but one with more truth than I would have realized before reading the book.

    My neighbor actually criticized Lincoln a few weeks ago, but in a way that we wish didn’t exist anymore. She’s an older woman from Rhode Island who was complaining about the robberies that she’s experienced in the mostly black neighborhood where we live: she said that if Lincoln were around today, she would blow his head off for freeing the slaves.

    Also, in college and grad school I ran into the more leftist, identity-politics critique of Lincoln. Reacting to the general black admiration of him as a savior, some historians began to argue that Lincoln didn’t care about slavery, but about the white Union. Instead, the slaves freed themselves by running away and fighting in the Union army.

    But in the mainstream culture, he is an idol or at least an icon, which is too bad because it takes away from the very interesting complexity that he represents: a racist by today’s standards who hated slavery and was probably among the less racist public figures of the time; a president who felt that he had to violate parts of the constitution to save it; an ugly and at time extremely unpopular man who became the icon we know today; and a politician who believed very much in the free market and economic opportunity who ended up presiding over a huge expansion of federal power.

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