A recent biography of a mid 19th century lawyer may be an unlikely prospect for a great book, but Amestoy did not have to play the odds. He has a sure winner when he chose the author of Two Years Before the Mast for a biography. What happened after those two years is every bit as momentous as that early voyage.
The two year voyage itself is recounted so we get the flavor of a Harvard undergrad taking a few years off climbing the rigging, witness to flogging, fear, cold and all the hardships of a 9000 mile voyage under sail. The view of early California (1835-36) before the gold rush reminds us of the Spanish heritage and a way of life that is no more. Dana saw San Francisco when it was but a few wooden buildings in front of a sandy beach.
In his law practice he found himself defending fugitive slaves from being returned to their owners. Dana found that old Boston families had made a pact with the cotton growers whose raw cotton fed New England’s mills. They were united in defending slavery and the Draconian provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act. Dana was far ahead of his time in hating slavery as he had hated the floggings on board ships. He was a man of principle and was guided by a clear head and noble purpose, clashing with the Brahmins of Boston who were just fine with the status quo.
Later on we find him defending Lincoln’s blockade of southern ports and the seizure and forfeiture of ships and cargo caught trying to run the blockade. The matter came before the Supreme Court where Dana made the winning argument that no one else had even imagined. His analysis carried the day and saved Lincoln from serious consequences had the blockade been found illegal and contrary to the Constitution or international law. Instead, Dana made international law.
While doing good, he made enemies, and those enemies exploited the corrupt system to defeat two federal positions Dana would dearly have liked. He was appointed ambassador to the Court of St. James, but his enemies pulled strings in Washington where the Senate committee held secret closed hearings where two old antagonists spread gross lies. The Senate turned down the appointment. The process of presidential appointments remains mired in petty misunderstandings and petty politics. Dana’s bitter experience has been repeated hundred of times.
The historical and political insights this book reveals through the life of Richard Dana are very much a part of America. The story reveals how America worked and still works, through back door deals, political favors; how political leaders are subject to all sorts of pressures, how the cautious operate and how the principled often find themselves sailing in rough seas. There is also a warmth and respect for Dana the man who was the fourth generation to attend Harvard, whose close friends included Longfellow, Melville, Emerson, several Adams, Charles Sumner and most of the prominent lawyers of his day. He was a standout of his period, being a man of letters, of the law, a legal scholar and a family man whose life in Cambridge was with students and professors.
The book benefits from the author’s clarity in describing the status of the judicial system at the time and the cases Dana argued. The author is himself a retired chief justice of Vermont’s Supreme Court. He handles these cases as a pro, with just the right amount of detail, but never is it excessive. It is clear Amestoy has a high regard for Dana’s legal accomplishments and not so high a regard for some of the judges and lawyers Dana had to deal with.