When Richard Henry Dana Jr. — a 19th-century attorney and author — dropped out of Harvard College to sail to California as a seaman, he left behind his Brahmin upbringing in Massachusetts for the thrill of adventure.
But after witnessing a flogging at sea, he returned home with an unwavering desire to fight against inequalities. Upon his return to Boston, Dana re-entered college and later went on to Harvard Law School, where he specialized in maritime law and dedicated his career to representing the oppressed. In 1840, Dana published a memoir about his two-year voyage as a sailor called Two Years Before the Mast, which soon became a bestseller for its gripping account of life at sea and has been in print ever since.
Slavish Shore: The Odyssey of Richard Henry Dana Jr. — a new biography by former Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice, Jeffrey Amestoy ‘72 — explores the contradiction between Dana’s upper-class background and his commitment to exposing the injustices of his time. The first biography written about Dana in over 50 years revisits his experience as a seaman and details the controversial cases that Dana took on throughout his legal career.
One such case includes Dana’s defense of Anthony Burns, who was the last fugitive slave in Massachusetts in 1854. Dana vehemently opposed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required that all runaway slaves be returned to their masters when captured. Despite Dana’s defense and the campaigns of abolitionists, the presiding judge ruled in favor of the law and sent Burns back to Virginia in shackles. Amestoy’s account reveals that Boston was not the free and accepting society that history books would have us believe, but that the city known as ‘The Cradle of Liberty’ thrived on the slave trade much like others did in the early 1850s.
“His story has largely been forgotten because he exposed the hypocrisy of white establishment in Boston at the time,” Amestoy said about Dana. In the mid-19th century, northern merchants needed cotton that was generated in the south to continue fueling industries. “He stood up against the enforcement of the [Fugitive Slave] law when very few members of his class did.” Dana’s impactful achievements include more than just representing runaway slaves; he also defended the rights of seamen and was later appointed as the Massachusetts United States District Attorney under President Lincoln. His role in the Supreme Court decision to blockade the Confederate ports in 1863 is considered the argument that saved the Union. And after the Civil War he also prosecuted Confederate President Jefferson Davis for treason.
Although they lived centuries apart, Amestoy’s own career path and passion for defending the downtrodden greatly parallels with Dana’s. Not only did Amestoy conduct most of his research for the biography as a fellow at Harvard University—Dana’s alma mater— but he also empathized with the political pressures that Dana faced as an appointed attorney. Amestoy similarly took on provocative cases throughout his career and even authored Vermont’s first same-sex union bill, Baker v. Vermont, in 1999. “I had some knowledge of what it was like to go through a controversial issue at a time when people were looking at it from a different perspective,” he reflected. As an attorney general, Amestoy worked on strengthening laws against domestic violence and child abuse. His interest in supporting progressive movements partially began as a student at UC Hastings in the early 1970s, where he said that he was impacted by the school’s emphasis on public service.
Published by Harvard University Press, the biography’s release date coincided with Dana’s bicentennial and the 175th anniversary of Two Years Before the Mast. Its publication also comes at a time when racial profiling and police conduct is being called into question. “It’s timely in the sense … of what the United States is going through now, as we’re rethinking our history and our treatment of African Americans,” he explained.
Amestoy also decided to write the book to highlight Dana’s notable career as a lawyer, which has often been overshadowed by his literary achievements. Slavish Shore: The Odyssey of Richard Henry Dana Jr. is intended for all Americans as a reminder of the gross inequities of the past.
For more information about Slavish Shore and to purchase a copy of the book, visit the Harvard University Press website.