Painful to Nice Feelings
Slavish Shore: The Odyssey of Richard Henry Dana Jr.
By Jeffrey L. Amestoy
Harvard University Press, 2015
The heart of the story that Harvard Kennedy School fellow (and former Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice) Jeffrey Amestoy tells in his vital new book Slavish Shore: The Odyssey of Richard Henry Dana Jr. centers not on advocacy or equality but on one stunning incident of brutality. Such incidents have the power to derail a life, to heave it by main force onto an entirely different track than it would otherwise have followed, and this was certainly the case in the life of Richard Henry Dana, Jr., a now-forgotten Boston lawyer who wrote one of the immortal classics of American literature.
Dana, as fans of seafaring lore may remember, was the author of the 1840 adventure-memoir Two Years Before the Mast, in which he vividly chronicles the journey he took from 1834 to 1836 aboard the brig Pilgrim, sailing while still a teenager from Boston to Alta California (then a part of Mexico) around Cape Horn, working the booming business of cured cow hides in a number of different coastal California towns from San Diego to San Francisco, and then in 1836 making the return voyage on board the Alert. Upon his return, Dana made a forced march through the institution that would later become Harvard Law School, all the while working up the diary he kept during his voyages into a book. He intended to tell the “unvarnished” tale of an ordinary seaman’s life and draw attention to some of that life’s gratuitous cruelties. “I have been obliged occasionally to use strong and coarse expressions,” he warned his readers. “and in some instances to give scenes which may be painful to nice feelings …”
One scene in particular: during his outward voyage, this handsome, well-born young man, son of a prominent lecturer and book critic, sailed under a captain who gradually revealed himself to be a sadistic maniac. By all the laws of the sea then in place, once that captain’s vessel was clear of land, he could rule it like the worst god out of mythology, with no hindrance on his cruelty.
This captain had taken an unfounded dislike to a slow-witted sailor named Sam and seized on an imagined insubordination to order the poor man strung up for flogging. Sam forlornly protested “I’m no negro slave,” to which the captain, just prior to administering a shocking beating with “a bight of thick, strong rope,” sneered, “Then I’ll make you one.”
Dana, watching with the rest of the crew, was horrified. “A man – a human being, made in God’s likeness – fastened up and flogged like a beast!” he later wrote. “A man, too, whom I had lived with and eaten with for months, and knew almost as well as a brother.”
Another crew member, John, asked the captain what offense Sam had committed to warrant a flogging, whereupon the captain wheeled on him and ordered that he, too, be bound and stripped for a beating. “Can’t a man ask a question here without being flogged?” John asked, and the Captain, by now raving with rage, answered:
“No … nobody shall open his mouth aboard this vessel, but myself;” and began laying the blows upon his back, swinging half round between each blow, to give it full effect. As he went on, his passion increased, and he danced about the deck, calling out as he swung the rope, – “If you want to know what I flog you for, I’ll tell you. It’s because I like to do it! – because I like to do it! – It suits me! That’s what I do it for!”
After witnessing these and other incidents of arbitrary cruelty, Dana confessed, “I can sincerely say that the simple mention of the word flogging brings up in me feelings which I can hardly control,” and the dedication of his entire future immediately began to take shape:
I thought of our situation, living under a tyranny; of the character of the country we were in; of the length of the voyage, and of the uncertainty attending our return to America; and then, if we should return, of the prospect of obtaining justice and satisfaction for these poor men; and vowed that if God should ever give me the means, I would do something to redress the grievances and relieve the sufferings of that poor class of beings, of whom I then was one.
Dana had been born to the lower fringes of Boston’s upper crust, the “Brahmin” society that sent its sons to Harvard and then on a Grand Tour of Europe before settling down to run the city their families had founded. But his career at Harvard had been – well, the standard euphemism is “undistinguished,” and in his junior year he and his family put forward the story (still uncritically accepted today, and maybe there’s no harm in that fact) that an attack of measles had rendered his eyesight too weak for book-studies. A sea-voyage was proposed for reasons of “health” (no mention of angry creditors – much less angry fathers of teenage Cambridge girls – has survived the documentary purges of Richard Henries Dana I, II, & III), and for reasons of economy, young Dana skipped the Grand Tour in favor of crewing “before the mast,” that is, with the Pilgrim‘s ordinary seamen.
Once he was back home with pen in hand, Dana transmuted the whole experience into far more than a simple moral tirade about the deprivations of the sailor’s life (any chapter of the book read at random is enough to dispel such a claim; this is a book clearly written to entertain). Two Years Before the Mast is full of adventure and romance with lovely Sandwich Island girls and riveting character moments and repeated reflections on the beauties of the natural world all around him, from the hot forests and chaparrals of the West Coast to the frightening majesty of an iceberg: “As far as the eye could reach,” he writes in a typical passage, “the sea in every direction was of a deep blue color, the waves running high and fresh, and sparkling in the light, and in the midst lay this immense mountain-island, its cavities and valleys thrown into deep shade, and its points and pinnacles glittering in the sun.”
He sold the copyright to the canny operators at Harper and Brothers for $250, hoping that if the book were rushed into print fast enough – it appeared in mid-September of 1840 – it would help him drum up business for his brand-new law office, taking briefs for aggrieved sailors. The stratagem worked, although if Dana had held out for even a small royalty, he’d have become the wealthiest man in the world and been able to help a great many more sailors than he ever did in Boston courtrooms. As it was, his British publisher Edward Moxon paid him an additional $500 for sale of the UK version of the book, which was universally praised. As the always-sympathetic Amestoy points out:
Dana must have often thought of the thousands of dollars the brothers Harper were receiving for the sale of Two Years Before the Mast. The substantial sums being made by others from his writing could not have been far from Dana’s mind when he toiled over the lectures he prepared to supplement the income from his law practice.
Those public talks weren’t always particularly successful. As Amestoy mentions somewhat drily, “He prepared meticulously crafted lectures on ‘The Sources of Influence’ and ‘American Loyalty,’ topics of his own choosing. They were not always the first choice of his audience.” But his law practice grew, at least in terms of notoriety, if not cash-flow. Dana started a family and, as many of his friends pointed out, worked harder than a draft animal to provide for them, constantly taking cases – a growing number of which began extending from oppressed seamen to the much broader class of the disenfranchised, the Negro slaves poor sailor Sam had mentioned back on the Pilgrim.
In 1850, pressured by Southern interests, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which granted unprecedented power to agents of Southern landowners intent on capturing fugitive slaves in Northern states and returning them to masters distressed over the loss of their “property.” Amestoy paints an accurately stark picture of its iniquity:
The alleged fugitive slave could not testify. The writ of habeas corpus was not available. There was no right of appeal. It was a crime to hinder or obstruct the seizure of an alleged fugitive slave. It was a crime to aid, abet, assist, rescue, or conceal an alleged fugitive slave. Commissioners had the authority to command citizens to assist as a posse comitatus in the seizure of an alleged runaway slave. It was the most draconian statute ever enacted into American law.
There haven’t been many biographies of Richard Henry Dana, and although neither Amestoy nor any other living writer could hope to match the Edwardian eloquence of the 1891 biography by Charles Francis Adams, the strongest element of Amestoy’s treatment in Slavish Shore is his dramatization of the intricacies and personalities of the growing Abolitionist fervor of Boston in the years of Dana’s flourishing. This was a decade in which politicians like Benjamin Butler and Daniel Webster could strut positions on national policy while keeping a steady eye on their own preferment, when even such seemingly natural allies as the Free-Soil Party (of which Dana was a member, opposing the extension of slavery to new states and territories) and the Abolitionists were as often as not at each other’s throats, and when, as Dana’s many incendiary court cases demonstrated, no black man in Boston was safe from the fear of being bodily seized and transported into slavery.
He fought those cases with a dogged combination of powerful rhetoric and exhaustive command of the law, and although Amestoy’s method of enhancing the social risks Dana was taking somewhat unfairly downplays the genuine anti-slavery zeal felt in Boston at the time, the picture here of an essentially fearless crusader is very dramatically effective. And the story of Dana’s apogee of public influence – serving as Massachusetts United States District Attorney under President Lincoln – is if anything sketched in too rapidly. Slavish Shore could very profitably have been three times its current 300 page length.
In his later years, Dana was prone to characterize his life in despondent terms (he frequently used the word “failure”), and the impression Amestoy conveys of a moody man constantly striving to be cheerful is probably correct. When the nonstop toil of his law practice began to wear him down, he began looking to public service, hoping for some appointment or other from a succession of presidents. The golden opportunity seemed to present itself at last when he was nominated at age 60 by President Grant in 1875 to be US ambassador to the Court of St. James’s in London. Dana fretted (as Amestoy tartly points out, “In common with those who receive a universally praised nomination requiring legislative confirmation, Dana’s real concern was that the vote might not be unanimous”) but also began preparing to cross the ocean – but the appointment was scuppered by long-time political enemies who took full advantage of the fact that the one person on whose behalf Dana was most reluctant to use his enormous rhetorical powers was himself.
The urge for service didn’t quite quit him, however, and in 1877 President Rutherford Hayes offered him a position that was a fairly frank snapshot of his diminished hopes: “Dana was asked to go to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to represent the United States in a quarrel with Canada over the value of mackerel.” When Amestoy adds, “Dana never exercised less than the full extent of his powers, irrespective of the case or controversy, and he did nothing less for mackerel,” even a stone-hearted reader will want to shed a few tears.
He took it stoically and, as Amestoy rightly points out, he did his best (the commission’s results – disastrously negative to American interests – had nothing to do with Dana’s advocacy and again sprang from just the kind of back-room politicking he never quite understood). Even in his final years spent in Italy, he was still working, amassing notes and sources for a great work on international law. He was in the midst of this preparation when he died, in Rome, in 1882.
Back home in Boston, his surviving friends, enemies, and part-time cronies at the Saturday Club seemed a bit baffled as to how to assess him. Charles Francis Adams told a group of stunned mourners at the Massachusetts Historical Society that Dana “was not adapted for quiet times” even though Adams knew better; James Russell Lowell made sniffing allusions to Dana’s unwillingness to maneuver for the career advancements he wanted; and all of them, friend and foe alike, acknowledged that Two Years Before the Mast was a monument that would last (“unmatchable,” in Herman Melville’s term). August 2015 marks the bicentennial of Dana’s birth. In the 170 years since his book appeared, it’s never been out of print, and now its author has a fine new biography published by the press that would have meant the most to him. And he inched the cause of equal rights steadily forward, suffering privation, backbiting, and even assault while taking clients his wealthier Boston colleagues wouldn’t come anywhere near. If these are the attainments of failure, it ought to be more widespread.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.