Skip to comments.Infamous Dred Scott slavery case decision took place 150 years ago this week
Posted on 03/08/2007 9:07:26 AM PST by lunarbicep
The framers of the United States Constitution believed that people of African descent had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit . [to be] bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it. With reference to the words all men are created equal in the Declaration of Independence: It is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race was not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration.
So wrote Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court 150 years ago this week, on March 6, 1857, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, among the most infamous case in the Courts history. The immediate result was to bar Dred Scott, a Missouri slave, from using the federal courts to win his freedom. More broadly applied, however, as constitutional historian Peter Irons has written, it brought the slavery issue to a boil and helped plunge the nation into civil war.
By most estimates, Taney should have ended his opinion with the words just quoted, whereby he established that under terms set down by the U.S. Constitution, African Americans were not citizens of the United States. Therefore Scott could not use the federal courts to sue for his freedom. This would have been devastating enough. But in what became the far more controversial part of his statement for the majority on the court (it was a 7 -2 decision), Taney further remarked that because slaves were property, their owners rights to that property were to be protected by law.
The Court ruled that despite precedents dating back over sixty years, slaves could not be barred from any U.S. territories by an act of Congress or even of a territorial government. This part of Taneys ruling was considered by many to be nonbinding, or ober dicta, in that it did not relate directly to the case at hand. Nevertheless, in that it foreshadowed how the Court would rule in future cases, even suggesting that the Court would declare state legislation outlawing slavery unconstitutional, it sent shock ways throughout the nation.
For the past half-century, in a series of legislative compromises, beginning with the Northwest Land Ordinance of 1787 and continuing to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, Congress had assumed the authority of ruling on slavery in the territories, while leaving it to the states to decide the fate thereafter in their various constitutions. With the Kansas Nebraska Act it decided to take another approach. Congress cancelled the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state and divided up the rest of the Louisiana Purchase into slave and non-slaving holding territories and states. It opted instead to let the people residing in the Kansas and Nebraska Territories decide the matter themselves. The result in Kansas was a bloody disaster that seemed beyond resolve, and now the Supreme Court signaled to Congress that there was no retreat to its former policy. Four years later, the nation was plunged into civil war.
A Short History of the Dred Scott Case
Dred Scott was a slave from his birth in Virginia. In 1830 his master, Peter Blow, moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where two years later Blow died and Scott was sold to Dr. John Emerson, a U.S. Army surgeon, to settle claims again Blows estate. Emerson was reassigned several times during his military career and took his slaves into the free territory of Wisconsin, where Dred Scott married Harriet Robinson. Any discussion of the legal issues surrounding slave marriages will have to wait, but Emerson took custody of Harriet, and Dred and Harriet brought four children into the world, only two of whom survived infancy. In 1837 Emerson moved back to St. Louis. From there he moved several more times but for most of the time thereafter, he left the Scotts in St. Louis with his wife, Irene.
Emerson died unexpectedly in December 1843. In February 1846, Dred Scott tried to purchase his freedom from Irene Emerson for $300, but she refused. In April he sued for his freedom in court, arguing that because he had been taken into areas of the country where slavery was prohibited, he had become legally free and thereafter should not have remained a slave even though he was returned to the slave state of Missouri.
The case took several years to work its way through the courts, and the issues involved were many and complicated. In sum, however, although the jury in a lower state court ruled the Scotts legally free, upon appeal the Missouri State Supreme Court reversed the decision. The judges ruled that Scotts presence in a free territory did not overrule the laws of Missouri to which he returned. Writing for the majority, Justice William Scott (not related to Dred Scott) praised God for instituting slavery, whereby men like Dred Scott could be elevated above the level of miserable Africans. The introduction of slavery amongst us, he continued, was in the providence of God, who makes the evil passions of men subservient to His own glory, a means of placing that unhappy race within the pale of civilized nations.
The matter might have been settled at that point, but in the process of defending her property, Irene Emerson had named her brother, John Sanford, to represent her in court. Sanford lived in New York. That made it an interstate matter, which allowed Scott to appeal the case to the federal courts. The Federal District Court in St. Louis upheld the state courts ruling, whereupon Scott appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. (Incidentally, the Court Clerk misspelled Sanfords name, thereby recording the case for posterity as Dred Scott v. Sandford.)
Historians speculate that the sons of Peter Blow, his original owner, paid Dred Scotts legal bills to this point. Taking the case to Washington, however, may have been too expensive for them. Soon after his appeal to the nations highest court, a twelve page appeal for help appeared under Scotts name. Whether or not Scott wrote it is subject to debate. It read, in part: I have no money to pay anybody in Washington to speak for me. My fellow men, can any of you help me in my day of trial? Will nobody speak for me at Washington, even without hope of other reward than the blessings of a poor black man and his family? On Christmas Eve 1854, Montgomery Blair, a prominent Washington attorney, who once practiced law in St. Louis, took Scotts case pro bono.
The immediate issue facing the Supreme Court was whether people of African descent, free or slave, could be citizens of the United States. If not, then the case could not proceed, because Scott would not be entitled to use the federal courts. On March 6, 1857, the Court handed down its ruling. In brief, the Court ruled that under Article III of the United States Constitution, Scott was not a citizen. States had the power to allow blacks citizenship for purposes of state law (and several had), but, Taney wrote, that did not qualify them for citizenship under the U.S. Constitution and make them subject to federal law. This would be changed by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that was adopted in the wake of the Civil War, but for the moment Scotts case could not be heard in the federal courts and the Missouri Supreme Court decision stood.
Most legal scholars agree that Taneys ruling should have ended there. Instead, he went on to declare that even though Scott had resided in a free territory, as established by the Missouri Compromise, he was not free because the Compromise was unconstitutional. Congress had overstepped its authority to pass needful rules and regulations in depriving slaveholders their property in those territories. In a part of the ruling that would relate to matters in Kansas at the time, Taney added that territorial legislatures had no power to bar slavery and, by implication, that states lacked the authority as well. Slaves were property and the taking of property without due process was prohibited under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.
The evidence suggests that Taney believed his decision was not only consistent with the letter and substance of the Constitution, but also that it would settle the slavery question once and for all. Instead, it outraged many in the North that opposed slavery, or at least its extension beyond where it currently existed. And it offered encouragement to those in the South (and Missouri) who sought its extension. They began to push for the passage of federal slave codes that would secure slavery wherever it wished to exist regardless of state or local action. Abraham Lincoln was among those who criticized the decision, most notably in his House Divided speech on June 16, 1858. When, two years later, he was elected President of the United States, the nation was plunged into Civil War.
Within months of the Dred Scott decision, Kansas residents had the opportunity to vote on a constitution by which, if approved, Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state. The wording of the Constitution echoed that of Roger Taney: The right of property is before and higher than any constitutional sanction, and the right of the owner of a slave is as inviolable as the right of the owner of any property whatever. Nevertheless, Kansans rejected the Lecompton Constitution (now on display in Constitution Hall in Lecompton), and as a result did not become a state until 1861. It became a free state, as provided for in the Wyandotte Constitution drafted in 1859.
By the way - the sons of Dred Scotts first owner purchased emancipation for Scott and his family on May 26, 1857. Dred Scott went to work as a hotel porter, but died of tuberculosis only sixteen months after becoming a free man.
Now it's a fetus that has "no rights which the white man was bound to respect.
7 Democratic judges and 2 Republican judges(or what would become Republican judges - the party was only 3 years old in 1857).
Oh Lord! Wait for the apologies to fly!
So if precedent is taken as law, why is not this decision brought to bear on current situations with terror suspects and illegal immigrants?
Yes, Virginia...it was a rhetorical question.
didn't the two Republicans dissent?
Yes, see http://grandoldpartisan.typepad.com for details.
One of those Republican justices sought the Republican presidential nomination the year before Dred Scott.
bills on Hill to apologize to Indians, blacks.....
Writing for the majority, Justice William Scott (not related to Dred Scott) praised God for instituting slavery, whereby men like Dred Scott could be elevated above the level of miserable Africans. The introduction of slavery amongst us, he continued, was in the providence of God, who makes the evil passions of men subservient to His own glory, a means of placing that unhappy race within the pale of civilized nations.
I know Justice William Scott and Taney were in for a very rude awakening when they went to meet God. I am pretty sure if they did somehow make it to heaven they are seriously regretting their decisions. I would have paid to see how Justice Scott explain this to God. I am pretty sure a lot of them found out in the end the error of their ways.
Good point - Although I suspect the civil war amendments likely had something to do with terrorists having civil rights. Another shocker is the Supreme Court protecting property rights of slave owners - but they won't protect land owner property rights now!
The Court's first major effort at rewriting the Constitution so that it would say what it "should say," rather than what it does say.
The single biggest factor leading to the Civil War, this decision turned out to be an utter disaster for its own side.
It is fascinating that 7 of 9 judges were obviously southern in their sympathies, a reasonably good marker for the degree of southern influence in the federal government as a whole at the time.
When they saw they were losing this influence, largely as a direct result of this idiotic decision, they chose to jump overboard, dragging the rest of the country with them.
Slavery is practically condoned in the Bible (New and Old Testament), but that was over 2,000 years ago. What was right for a society in 500 BC isn't right for a rapidly industrialized economy.
Slavery wasn't an evil in a Subsistance, agricultural country. The alternative is that many of the slaves would have just perished.
Obviously, slavery has no place in a modern economy.
Too bad Abraham Lincoln and the Southern Firebrands did not
have the wisdom to understand that slavery was doomed to extinction, with or without a murderous Civil War.
It was the far 2007 and fear and collective guilt continued to grip our people...
"You have nothing to fear but fear itself."
Here is a link to the dissent of Justice Curtis:
And some Americans wouldn't still be waxing lyrical about the UK as the "mother country." (It's an ally, intrinsically the same as Germany, Japan, Australia, South Korea, etc.).
Yup, sure did.
The Industrial Revolution was still in its beginnings when these events took place. The Steam Engine had not yet become the mainstay of the entire economy from ag sector to heavy mfg. Had the Civil War not taken place, slavery would probably have lasted to the end of the century........
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