Dred Scott’s Revenge

Andrew Napolitano’s Dred Scott’s Revenge: A Legal History of Race and Freedom in America is the first book of his that I’ve read. He’s clearly a libertarian, but not one who fits into any standard category. His writing about slavery is passionate, and he spares no one who contributed in any way to the continued existence of slavery—not even Locke, Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln. He favors judicial activism, in the sense that he places natural rights above adherence to the letter of the Constitution. But in some ways he’s more like a conservative. He regards religion as the foundation of natural rights, and he stresses this point so much that he doesn’t leave much room for a rational foundation for rights. He regards the “rights” of an unborn “baby” as equal to the rights of a black (or white) person. One thing I’m sure of is that his convictions, whether they make sense or not, are his own and not a convenience to please some group.

His scathing critique of Lincoln (whose Emancipation Proclamation, he correctly notes, “freed” only those slaves who were beyond the Union government’s reach) has a superficial resemblance to what comes from the Lew Rockwell crowd. However, the Rockwellians are working from a thinly veiled sympathy for the Confederacy; there’s no hint of this in Napolitano.

He makes a stunning claim:

Lincoln strategically used the United States Constitution as a tool to resist interference with the institution of slavery. Before he was elected president, he proposed an amendment which stated in part:
No Amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of the State.

“Persons held to labor or service” was a legal term for slaves. A Wikipedia article (as it stands while I’m writing this) refers to the quoted amendment as the Corwin Amendment and doesn’t mention any role by Lincoln in proposing it, though he said in his First Inaugural Address, “I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.” He said there that he had not seen the amendment, which if true means he couldn’t have proposed it.

Much of the book is a study in how viciously people can act and how virtuous they can claim to be about it. It’s often painful reading.

In discussing the modern world, Napolitano has harsh things to say about both of the major parties: the Republicans for playing to racial politics even when not actually being racist, and the Democrats for fostering black dependency on government programs.

The last chapter before the short wrap-up strikes a more optimistic note than most of the book, dealing with the story of Jackie Robinson. As a Christian, Napolitano is clearly impressed by Robinson’s stoicism in the face of insults and abuse. I’m just a bit disappointed that he didn’t mention that while Robinson was the first black player in the majors, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe beat him by a year into integrated pro baseball, right here in Nashua.

Judge Napolitano is certainly an interesting and distinctive figure. I admire his passion, but his insistence that “natural” rights are supernatural in origin undermines his position. I’m planning to look at some of his other books.

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