Lea VanderVelde is the Josephine Witte Professor of Law at the University of Iowa, where she teaches courses in constitutional, labor, and property law, and a special research course on the law of the antebellum frontier. She writes about labor, slavery, gender, and constitutional law, and most particularly, circumstances of legal subordination in nineteenth-century American law. Her first book, Mrs. Dred Scott (2009), chronicles the life of Harriet Scott, the enslaved woman behind the U.S. Supreme Court's notorious Dred Scott v. Sandford case, and describes the life circumstances of other slaves living and working on the northern frontier where slavery was banned. VanderVelde has also written on the legal circumstances of nineteenth-century working women. In the "Legal Ways of Seduction" (Stanford Law Review, June 2009), she documents how the tort of seduction provided the only means by which servant girls could sue masters who had sexually enticed or assaulted them, and in "The Gendered Origins of the Lumley Doctrine," (Yale Law Journal, 1992), she analyzes how actresses served as a pivot point for the development of a contract law doctrine that bound performers to their contracts in ways antithetical to free labor ideals. As a Guggenheim fellow in constitutional studies, Vandervelde wrote Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott (2014) which tells the stories of 12 slave families' suits in St. Louis courts. The book presents newly discovered slave narratives, given as these slaves filed suit for freedom, and remarkably, the majority of slave litigants in these cases won their freedom. Currently, she is the principal investigator for The Law of the Antebellum Frontier project at the Stanford Spatial History Lab, digitally analyzing the legal mechanisms at work on the American frontier in the early 1800s.
More than 300 slaves sued for their freedom in the St. Louis courts before Dred Scott was decided. In "Redemption Songs," I've selected 12 stories of families who worked their way to freedom by suing their masters. Slaves could base their claims on their experience living on free lands, often in the course of their masters' westward migration The stories are diverse. Each shows how different the fight for freedom could be when slaves turned to the courts.