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Jeffrey Amestoy’s new book profiles a 19th-century abolitionist

“Slavish Shore: The Odyssey of Richard Henry Dana Jr.” tells an unexpected story about the author and lawyer — and about 19th-century Boston.

Matthew Cavanaugh

I came to [Richard Henry] Dana [Jr.]’s story through his Two Years Before the Mast, a book that’s been in print since 1840. Everybody read it for a very long time. Probably less people read it now. Melville called it unmatchable. Dana couldn’t stand to see a human being demeaned by someone in authority. He saw that firsthand when he saw his shipmates flogged.

When he came back to Boston, he saw the federal prosecutor demean Massachusetts’s only African-American lawyer in court and prosecutors single out members of the African-American community, all in their effort to seize a slave. It appalled him because it represented abuse of authority by people he thought should know better.


The popular history is that the best people in Boston were opposed to the Fugitive Slave Law and slavery. I think one of the reasons Dana has sort of disappeared from history in terms of his advocacy as a lawyer is that it shows the Boston establishment and the Brahmin class for the hypocrites most of them were. It became clear to me that we were telling ourselves a much better story than we deserved.

His later role in the “prize cases” has been called the Supreme Court argument that saved the Union. Had the Supreme Court ruled against Lincoln and the Union, it may have undercut the authority for the Emancipation Proclamation and to extend the draft.

Dana did take some extraordinarily courageous decisions, standing up against the very class he was part of. His political instincts were not good, but I admired him all the more for that.

BY THE BOOK Amestoy will appear at the Massachusetts Historical Society on September 23, Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site on October 1, and Porter Square Books on October 7.