Sometimes out of tragedies come amazing victories. Legal scholars consider the Dred Scott decision one of the worst, if not the worst, Supreme Court rulings in history. However, it was the last nail in the coffin that pushed the country into a war that finally abolished slavery.
In 1820, Congress settled much of the contention about slavery, forbidding it in the North with the Missouri Compromise. Though Northern abolitionists still wanted to rid the country of the institution altogether, they as least approved confining to the South.
Then in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act negated the Missouri Compromise. Frustrated, abolitionists formed a political party specifically focused on eradicating slavery.
Dred Scott’s fight for freedom reached the Supreme Court as racial tensions were beginning to boil. Several slaves already succeeded in winning their freedom. Yet that occurred at state levels. This would be national.
Dr. John Emerson purchased Scott from the Blow family in the early 1830’s in the slave state of Missouri. An Army surgeon, Emerson received transfers to free territories and states where Scott accompanied him. Scott married Harriet Robinson in 1838, which resulted in her ownership transferring to Emerson.
The couple returned to Missouri with Emerson and his wife, Irene, where Emerson died in 1843. Scott believed he earned his freedom due to his years in free territory where slavery was outlawed. Scott attempted to purchase his family’s freedom from Irene Emerson. When she refused, he decided to sue.
Scott won his freedom in his first lawsuit. Emerson then appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court and prevailed. By this time, however, Emerson had moved to Massachusetts. She transferred ownership to her brother, John Sanford, from New York, thus forcing Scott to turn to Federal Courts. After loosing that decision in 1854, Scott took his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Republican Platform during the 1856 election included just 9 principles. Of those, six related to equality and civil rights for blacks as outlined in the Declaration.
However, the Democrat Platform, led by James Buchanan, read:
“All efforts of the abolitionists…are calculated to lead to the most alarming and dangerous consequences, and…all such efforts have an inevitable tendency to diminish the happiness of the people.”
As Buchanan transitioned into the White House in early 1857, the Supreme Court heard the Dred Scott vs. Sanford arguments. Holding true to the Democrat principles, Buchanan sent letters to Northern judiciaries, urging them to vote against Scott. Five of the nine judges were Southerners. With one Northerner already pro-slavery, Buchanan encouraged a decision across sectional lines for the “happiness of the people”.
Buchanan suggested to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney that done properly, this ruling would end the slavery argument permanently. Both men served under Andrew Jackson, “Father of the Democrat Party”, who also appointed Taney to the court. He understood Buchanan’s advice and obliged.
Buchanan addressed the upcoming ruling at his inauguration, boldly announcing, “To their decision, in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit, whatever this may be.” Of course he would as a justice already informed him of the outcome.
The court issued its ruling two days later on March 6, 1857. Scott lost in a 7-2 decision. The two dissenters were Northern Republicans while the rest were all Democrats from both sides. Buchanan wanted to avoid a Northern vs Southern ruling. What he got was a Republican vs Democrat one.
In his 55-page opinion, Taney ruled Scott had no right to sue as he was not a citizen. Referring back to the Missouri ruling, his opinion could have stopped there. But it didn’t.
First, Taney claimed Congress had no authority to prohibit territories from allowing slavery, rendering the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.
Taney then argued the Founders agreed Africans were not citizens and never meant for the Declaration or Constitution to apply to them. However, in 1776, blacks were voting citizens in several states.
“At the time of the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, All free native-born inhabitants of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina, though descended from African slaves, were not only citizens of those States, but such of them as had the other necessary qualifications possessed the franchise of electors, on equal terms with other citizens.”
Taney’s argument was sloppy at best. An outright propaganda lie at worst.
Taney also invoked the Fifth Amendment, claiming slaves, as property, could not be taken from their owner when entering a free state without due process. Yet the Founders carefully chose their wording in the Declaration to avoid such a defense. Originally phrased, “Life, Liberty and Property,” Founders purposely re-worded it to “Pursuit of Happiness,” fearing slaveholders would apply the property argument to slaves. Unfortunately, Taney made the false claim anyway.
Taney not only ruled slaves were non-citizens then, he declared they never could be, regardless whether they were free or slaves. It rejected citizenship rights of blacks forever.
Democrat progressives try to spin Taney’s decision, claiming he wanted to remove slavery from the Federal Government and put it to the states. However, by declaring blacks, free or otherwise, could never be citizens, he actually cemented their fate forever in slavery. By citing the Fifth Amendment, he rendered free states impotent in preventing slavery from entering their boarders.
Southern Democrat slaveholders cheered the ruling, declaring it the law of the land. On the other hand, Northern Republicans rebelled, more determined than ever to defeat slavery and give blacks equal rights.
Over the next several years, Republicans fought back, including Abraham Lincoln. The Scott ruling inspired his “House Divided” speech, warning another decision may come soon declaring it unconstitutional for a state to forbid slavery entering its boarders.
“What Dred Scott’s master might lawfully do with Dred Scott, in the free state of Illinois, every other master may lawfully do with any other one, or 1,000 slaves, in Illinois, or in any other free state.”
Furthermore, he argued if the Supreme Court determined Congress unauthorized to limit slavery, it was only a matter of time until they concluded the same with states.
“We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free, and we shall awake to the reality instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.”
By 1860, Republicans gained the presidency on their anti-slavery platform. With the secession of seven Southern states by Lincoln’s inauguration, war was inevitable. In sweet irony, Taney performed Lincoln’s swearing-in.
Following the verdict, the Blow family repurchased the Scotts and freed them on May 26, 1857. Dred Scott died 18 months later, but as a free man.
After the Civil War, Republicans rectified the dreadful Dred Scott decision, making all natural born blacks citizens, by passing the 14th Amendment without one single Democrat vote.
Many scholars still revere Taney as an outstanding judiciary regardless of this ruling. However, his legacy is forever tarnished by the Dred Scott Decision.
One hundred and sixty years ago, Democrats used the courts to push their agenda onto the citizens regardless of their objections. Eventually, the people rose up and took the country back. And so goes the election of 2016. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
But that’s just my 2 cents.