March 6, 1857 – The Supreme Court Issued the Dred Scott Decision

The Supreme Court decision Scott v. Sandford (60 U.S. 393) was issued on March 6, 1857. Dred Scott was a slave from the state of Missouri. He sued for his freedom, alleging that he had been brought by his master to a free state (Illinois) and a free territory (Wisconsin), where slavery was prohibited. He claimed that the time he spent on free soil made him a free person. He claimed jurisdiction in federal court under the “diversity of citizenship” provision of the Constitution, which permits citizens of one state to sue citizens of another state in federal rather than state court. The opinion, delivered by Chief Justice Roger Taney, declared that all people of African ancestry, whether slave or free, were not citizens of the United States. Therefore no Negro had the right to bring suit in Federal courts taking advantage of the “diversity of citizenship” jurisdiction. In addition, the decision declared that the Missouri Compromise (restricting slavery in certain new territories) was unconstitutional and that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories. Therefore, the time Scott spent in a free territory was of no legal significance. The Dred Scott decision was overturned by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.

Justice Roger B. Taney

Justice Roger B. Taney

Justice Taney wrote:

The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen, one of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution?”

He continued:

In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.”

One of his arguments was indisputable:

The general words [of the Declaration] would seem to embrace the whole human family, and if they were used in a similar instrument at this day would be so understood. But 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; for if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted; and instead of the sympathy of mankind, to which they so confidently appealed, they would have deserved and received universal rebuke and reprobation.

. . .

[The Framers] spoke and acted according to the then established doctrines and principles, and in the ordinary language of the day, and no one misunderstood them. The unhappy black race were separated from the white by indelible marks, and laws long before established, and were never thought of or spoken of except as property, and when the claims of the owner or the profit of the trader were supposed to need protection.”

The meaning and intent of the Declaration is an extremely important and interesting question, one that was debated extensively by Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.

Douglas maintained that “when [the Founders] declared all men to have been created equal – that they were speaking of British subjects on this continent being equal to British subjects born and residing in Great Britain – that they were entitled to the same inalienable rights, and among them were enumerated life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration was adopted for the purpose of justifying the colonists in the eyes of the civilized world in withdrawing their allegiance from the British crown, and dissolving their connection with the mother country.”

Lincoln disagreed. Speaking in Springfield, Illinois on June 26, 1857, Lincoln declared:

Chief Justice Taney, in his opinion in the Dred Scott case, admits that the language of the Declaration is broad enough to include the whole human family, but he and Judge Douglas argue that the authors of that instrument did not intend to include negroes, by the fact that they did not at once, actually place them on an equality with the whites. Now this grave argument comes to just nothing at all, by the other fact, that they did not at once, or ever afterwards, actually place all white people on an equality with one or another. And this is the staple argument of both the Chief Justice and the Senator, for doing this obvious violence to the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration. I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal in “certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This they said, and this meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism. They knew the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant when such should re-appear in this fair land and commence their vocation they should find left for them at least one hard nut to crack.”

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Lincoln’s vision, invoking the better angels of the Founders as well as all of us who followed, has prevailed.

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