introduction The Game of Genre
Claiming of Rights
Defending a slave charged with stealing a letter from a post office, an
enterprising counsel argued that, according to the recent ruling of Dred
Scott v Sandford (1857), a slave was not a legal person and thus not subject
to the
law.1
His slippery argument in U.S. v Army (1859) raised to an-
other level of absurdity the issue of persons as property and property in
persons, which had challenged the legal system from the colonial period
in the seventeenth century through the founding of the nation in the
eighteenth and into the middle of the nineteenth centuries, when former
‘‘property,’’ such as Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, spoke elo-
quently as ‘‘persons’’ against chattel slavery. Roger B. Taney, the presid-
ing chief justice of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, began that
decision by raising the key question of civil rights for slaves: ‘‘The ques-
tion is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this
country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community
formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United
States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and
immunities, granted by that instrument to the citizen?’’
2
Taney’s answer to the question was a stunning blow to all people of
African descent in the United States, whether free or slave. He deter-
mined that even before the nation’s founding, ‘‘the negro race’’ had been
‘‘regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to asso-
ciate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so
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