Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Dreaded Scott Decision

Dred Scott (1795-1858)

Dred Scott, a slave, was taken by his master into the free states of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Scott was away from Missouri, his slave state, for four years. So he sued for his freedom. The audacity of this slave to do such a thing, but he did. His claim was that he was an established person on "free soil."
The lower courts ruled against Scott. (Color me surprised!) The case eventually went to the Supreme Court of the United States. Again the ruling was unfavorable. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a resident of Maryland, and the other justices ruled that Dred Scott could not bring suit in federal court because he was a Negro, not just a slave.
"No Negro whether slave or free, could ever be considered a citizen of the United States within the meaning of the Constitution."
Thus, Scott's real problem was not his servitude but his race. This outspoken blow was a positive message for the south in that slavery in America was not going away but was legally a part of the American way of life.

Chief Justice Taney -- a staunch supporter of slavery and intent on protecting southerners from northern aggression -- wrote in the Court's majority opinion that, because Scott was black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue. The framers of the Constitution, he wrote, believed that blacks
"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. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it."

Referring to the language in the Declaration of Independence that includes the phrase, "all men are created equal," Taney reasoned that
"it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration. . . ."

The weird thing is, he was correct. The brilliant men who framed the constitution certainly never intended to infer black equality with white Americans.

Abolitionists were incensed. By 1854, the Dred Scott case brought a setback to the Abolitionist Movement. Although disappointed, Frederick Douglass, found a bright side to the decision and announced, "my hopes were never brighter than now." For Douglass, the decision would bring slavery to the attention of the nation and was a step toward slavery's ultimate destruction. Douglass was right, the Dred Scott Decision helped to further polarize the North and the South and quicken the arrival of the Civil War.

While the decision was well-received by slaveholders in the South, many northerners were outraged. The decision greatly influenced the nomination of Abraham Lincoln to the Republican Party and his subsequent election, which in turn led to the South's secession from the Union.
After the Supreme Court's decision, Dred Scott's former master's sons purchased Scott and his wife and set them free. Dred Scott died nine months later.

1 comment:

Monica Roberts said...

March 6 marked the 150th anniversary of this heinous decision.