The Dred Scott Decision

028_1601In order to understand the condition or conditioning of colored people, as they are often called, is to go back to 1857 and talk about Dred Scott. It is a sad fact that slavery was the law of the land, and the Supreme Court made its continuance concrete. Dred Scott was a slave whose owner took him outside the south and through states that did not allow slavery to allow his freedom.

These states had rules that any enslaved person brought into the state became free. It is also worth understanding that anywhere south of Canada is in the south, which means slavery and racism was the American way of life. In fact, it was the law!

Dred Scott sued to try to win his freedom, and this case reached the Supreme Court had a very broad and damaging outcome. The Supreme Court ruled that Dred Scott, a Negro, had no rights whatsoever. He was property, not a person or a citizen. He had no right to sue in federal court. Further, the court ruled that the federal government had no legal right to interfere with the institution of slavery. Slavery advocates were encouraged and began to make plans to expand slavery into all of the western territories and states. This created much of the tension and frankly considered the first volley of the Civil War.

Born in Virginia c. 1800, Dred Scott came to St. Louis in 1830. In the next year John Emerson, an army physician who had settled in St. Louis, acquired him. Emerson took Scott to various places, including Illinois and the Wisconsin territory, where the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820, respectively, had prohibited slavery. In 1836, Dred Scott married another slave, Harriet. Shortly after that the Scotts joined Emerson and his wife in Louisiana. Despite going along free territory along both sides of the river, the Scott’s did not escape. In 1843, after the death of her husband, Mrs. Emerson became the owner of the Scott family. She hired them out, seemed pleased with the income, and ignored Dred Scott’s proposals to purchase his family’s freedom.

By 1850, the technical issues in the case were overshadowed by a larger national controversy over citizenship in the United States and slavery in the territories. Senator John C. Calhoun led vigorous southern efforts pushing for slaveholders to be able to take their property with them into the territories. Proslavery Missourians drafted the “Jackson Resolutions” and intended to use the Dred Scott case to bring the principles of the Southern Address to bear on Missouri law.

In a previous case, Rachel v. Walker (1836) had established a precedent, the Missouri Supreme Court ruling that a slave owned by an army officer had been made free while residing in the Wisconsin Territory. Moreover, in the U.S. Supreme Court case, Strader v. Graham (1851), Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that the law of the state in which the suit was tried would determine the case’s outcome. But another dimension of both the Strader and Scott v. Emerson (1852) cases was what course to take when one state law conflicted with that of another. Hence, the Supreme Court had to decide.

Both sides argued before the U.S. Supreme Court; the pro-slavery argued that African-Americans could not be citizens and that the federal government had no right to interfere with the property rights of slaveholders. They also argued that since the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) had repealed the Missouri Compromise, the prohibition of slavery north of 36 degrees 30 minutes north, latitude could not be employed to secure the Scott’s freedom. The Court scheduled the case to be reargued one month after the federal election of 1856.

Efforts to maintain judicial restraint quickly failed, as Taney insisted on deciding that African Americans, both free and slave, could not be citizens of the United States and that the government could not bar slave property from the territories. Each justice wrote his own opinion in the case, although Taney’s “Opinion of the Court” was seen as the Dred Scott decision. In it, he insisted that citizenship existed at two levels, state and federal. State citizenship did not permit an individual to bring suit in federal court, as Taney found an insurmountable barrier in the U.S. Constitution that defined blacks as a “subordinate and inferior class of being.”

Scholarly analysis of the Taney decision has been almost entirely negative. Many scholars insist that the decision did not carry the weight of law as a majority of the justices did not explicitly agree on any other issues. On the issue of citizenship, Taney is judged to be the weakest. His effort to locate a racial barrier in the Constitution rested on little more than his racist convictions.

Scott attempted to purchase his family’s freedom for $300, but Irene Emerson refused the offer, so Scott sued for their freedom in court, a strategy that had worked for certain other former slaves. The first case against Irene Emerson (Scott v. Emerson, (1847) was dismissed for lack of evidence; by the time the second case was tried (Scott v. Sanford, (1857), Emerson’s brother, John Sanford had assumed responsibility for his sister’s legal affairs (which is why his name is on the case instead of hers).

What we must never forget the Supreme Court denoted that “there are no rights that a black man has that a white man is bound to respect.” Never forget these words for the highest court in the land which is policy and a fact of white supremacy! And that’s my thought provoking perspective…

The case citation is Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 US 393 (1857)

About Thought Provoking Perspectives

Welcome to Thought Provoking Perspectives a blog designed to be a potent source of empowering knowledge to broaden the information base with those who share my passion for the written word and the empowerment of thought. View all posts by Thought Provoking Perspectives

3 responses to “The Dred Scott Decision

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