The Dred Scott Decision: An Investigation

To say that the 1857 Dred Scott Decision is a landmark of U.S. jurisprudence, history, and civil rights is an understatement. It is one of the bare handful of Supreme Court cases and decisions that is regularly studied in U.S. schools (along with Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, and the early Marshall decisions).  What most Americans learn about Dred Scott is this:

In 1857, the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, declared in its Dred Scott v. Sanford decision that black Americans, whether they were considered free people or enslaved, were not citizens of the U.S. and could never become citizens because of their race. Dred Scott was an enslaved man who lived in Missouri. The man enslaving him took Scott and Scott’s wife Harriet  north to the free states of Illinois and Wisconsin, then took them back to slave Missouri. Scott claimed that once he and Harriet had crossed the border into free states, they had become free, as slavery was not allowed in those states. Once a person has gained free status, whether deliberate or not, he or she cannot be returned to slavery.

Chief Justice Taney was firmly pro-slavery and his decision was based on his desire to protect slavery where it existed in the southern states and where it might be outlawed in the west. In his majority decision, Taney said that black Americans “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.”

Taney then topped this outrageous statement with the assertion that the Declaration of Independence’s ringing statement that “all men are created equal” did not apply to black people. He wrote, “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…”

Taney’s racism and determination to protect slavery led him to disallow Scott to even present a case to the Supreme Court, since he was not  U.S. citizen and to reaffirm not only the legality of slavery but its righteousness. One man’s mission sentenced millions of people to slavery.

This common interpretation of the decision is not quite right. Its outcome was, indeed, that slavery was upheld. But the decision is more a careful avoidance of drawing conclusions about slavery than a pro-slavery manifesto. It is just another in a decades-long series of non-decisions that refused to get the Court involved in the impossibly dangerous slavery debate. The Court had, for years, insisted that Congress fulfill its appointed duty to legislate and create a law to solve the slavery issue once and for all. It would not accept Congress lobbing that hot potato back in its lap.

In the next post, we’ll look briefly at the context of the Dred Scott case, and see why the Court was put in the position of deciding a slavery issue, and why it resisted doing just that so vehemently.

Next time: the slave question in 1857

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