In his new book “Slavish Shore: The Odyssey of Richard Henry Dana Jr.,” Jeffrey L. Amestoy ’68, P’11, P’14 tells the story of the 19th-century author, seaman, social justice activist and perhaps first civil rights lawyer.
A Harvard dropout from an upper class family, Dana became famous for his book “Two Years Before the Mast,” which has remained in print since its publication in 1840. Dana’s book “is an extraordinary account,” Amestoy says, “of his harrowing voyage round Cape Horn to the then remote California coast.”
“Two years as a common seaman exposed him to a life far different from aristocratic Boston,” Amestoy continues. “It did not seem possible to me that the young man who had that exposure could have become the stereotypical ‘business lawyer’ that conventional history would have us believe. So I started researching.”
In “Slavish Shore,” Amestoy, the 38th Chief Justice of Vermont’s Supreme Court, details the trajectory of Dana’s life, his career as a lawyer and his journey to become one of America’s most zealous champions of freedom and human dignity — from his defense of fugitive slave Anthony Burns, to justifying President Abraham Lincoln’s war powers before the Supreme Court, to prosecuting Confederate President Jefferson Davis for treason. For his commitment to civil rights, Dana received an honorary degree from Hobart College in 1853.
Amestoy hopes that “Slavish Shore,” the first full-length biography of Dana in more than 50 years, “can illuminate society’s current challenge of the legacy of slavery and its consequences for equal justice.”
“Americans like to tell ourselves a better history than we deserve,” he says. “I think it would come as a surprise to most readers that the most powerful economic, political and social class in Boston was really a ‘pro-slavery’ community in the 1850s. The use of police and prosecutors to seize black residents of Boston and send them back to slavery was supported by ‘the establishment.’ Dana confronted the hypocrisy of a society that subjugated justice and dignity to material interests. The challenges he faced still resonate.”
Amestoy says he was inspired — and hopes that his readers will be, too — by “the extent to which Dana was willing to risk comfort, career (and at one point his life) to defend human dignity and freedom. One of my readers said Dana was one of the first great ‘civil rights’ lawyers and that was certainly true of Dana’s advocacy on behalf of men who sought nothing more nor less than to be freemen not slaves.”
Born and raised in Vermont, Amestoy arrived on the HWS campus interested in political science. When he graduated from Hobart and was preparing to enter law school, he was drafted. After serving for six months in the U.S. Army Reserve, he studied law at Hastings College of Law at The University of California, San Francisco. He then returned to Vermont, where he began his career as an Assistant Attorney General.
After earning a master’s in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Amestoy accepted an offer to become Vermont’s Commissioner of Labor and Industry, a position he held until resigning in 1984 to run for State Attorney General. He was elected to a two-year term — and reelected six times in the years that followed — and held the position of president of the National Association of Attorneys General from 1992 to 1993.
In 1996, he was nominated by then-Governor Howard Dean to be Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, was confirmed by the Senate and took office in 1997, serving until 2004.
In 1999, Amestoy authored the landmark state Supreme Court decision Baker v. State, which held that same-sex couples were constitutionally entitled to the rights and benefits of marriage. At the time, such a decision was almost unheard of. After that ruling, when Vermont became the first state to institute civil unions for same-sex couples, there were calls for Amestoy’s impeachment, but his decision sparked a national conversation that has led to monumental change.
In April 2014, Amestoy, the father of three — two of whom are William Smith graduates — was bestowed the Hobart Medal of Excellence, the Alumni Association’s highest honor, for his commitment to justice throughout his successful and influential career as a lawyer, Attorney General, and Chief Justice.