Dred Scott: Slavery as “doctrine and principle”

Part three of our look at the 1857 Dred Scott decision comes to the section of Chief Justice Taney’s majority opinion in which he switches from detailing precedent—the ways in which U.S. law has had slavery written into it—to explaining why the Founders did that, why they held racist beliefs about black people, why they had no choice but to respond by writing slavery into U.S. law, and why, therefore, Taney and his Court will have no choice but to uphold that law and to uphold slavery.

Let’s resume the text of the decision; again this is not the complete text, but excerpts taken in order. All italics are mine:

“…[T]he legislation and histories of the time [when the Declaration of Independence was written], 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.

“It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race, which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted….

“They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery. . . He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, which no one thought of disputing, or supposed to be open to dispute; and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion.”

—Here Taney is not saying, Look at how racist people were back then. He is not just describing a previous time and its beliefs. You have to remember that Taney is writing as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and he is writing about the men who founded our government. This is a civics lesson. Just as we said in the last post, this is not mere private opinion. Because these opinions about black people are in the minds and mouths of the Founders, these opinions literally become the philosophical foundation of our system of government and code of law.

The line that is almost always pulled from this opinion and quoted is the line, “the negro has no rights which the white man is bound to respect”. But notice that this not not a judgment Taney makes; he is describing not his personal opinion or a universal principle but the opinions of the Founders. We know enough by now to recognize that this is citing precedent—Taney is not making a judgment of his own. It’s not Taney saying “the negro has no rights which the white man is bound to respect”, it is the Founders and all U.S. slave law since them. We’ve mentioned in the previous post that the Taney decision actually will be “this Court has no business even hearing the Dred Scott case because he is not a U.S. citizen, therefore we decline to give a ruling.”

Taney ends that quote by saying none of the Founders ever doubted that their low opinion of black people was correct; he will reiterate this in the next paragraph, in which he expands to say that England, our founding nation, shared the same opinion, and that no one seems to have doubted that it was correct. He then cites some of the slavery laws of the American colonies, and then says,

“[T]hese laws … show that a perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery, and governed as subjects with absolute and despotic power…

“We refer to these historical facts for the purpose of showing the fixed opinions concerning that race, upon which the statesmen of that day spoke and acted … in order to determine whether the general terms used in the Constitution of the United States, as to the rights of man and the rights of the people, was intended to include them [black people], or to give to them or their posterity the benefit of any of its provisions.”

—The first lines give you hope: Taney describes slavery as despotic. He describes a barrier put between black and white and you think, for a moment, that he will describe that barrier as false and wrong. But it is not to be. Remember, the question is not whether slavery is right or wrong. The question is, Is slavery supported and enforced by U.S. law? You may hate slavery, Taney may hate it, but that is not the issue. Support it or hate it, if slavery is enforced by and enshrined in U.S. law, the Court must uphold it. The only alternative is to call slavery unconstitutional.

Why not do just that? Taney is getting to that. Is there an argument to be made that the line “All men are created equal” should now apply to black people? Notice how Taney adds “to black people or their posterity” to the last line above. It’s a quick little clause but it’s important. If the Constitution was not meant to give equal rights to black Americans living at the time of its ratification in 1787, could it possibly be changed to offer those rights to their children and grandchildren?

This is tricky because Taney is asking what the Founders intended for the future. Did they say anything that seems to open the door to freeing black people decades after 1787—i.e., 1857, the year of the Dred Scott case?

“But it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included… 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.”

—Why would including black Americans as equal citizens have exposed the Founders to “rebuke and reprobation”? Because you cannot designate one group of people as inferior, incapable of understanding or law, and then give them full rights of citizenship. That cheapens citizenship, and makes democracy  impossible. It’s like making people who can’t swim lifeguards. If you say black people are ignorant and incapable of law, you cannot include them without making your democracy a sham.

Yet the men who framed this declaration were great men… high in their sense of honor, and incapable of asserting principles inconsistent with those on which they were acting. They perfectly understood the meaning of the language they used, and how it would be understood by others; and they knew that it would not in any part of the civilized world be supposed to embrace the negro race, which, by common consent, had been excluded from civilized Governments and the family of nations, and doomed to slavery. They spoke and acted according to the then established doctrines and principles, and in the ordinary language of the day, no one misunderstood them. The unhappy black race were separate from 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.

—It was no accident, it was no oversight. The Founders deliberately excluded black Americans from the definition of citizen, based on the “established doctrine and principles” of the civilized world of their time. They had no choice but to do so—those doctrines and principles demanded it. As “great men”, the Founders could not cheapen and destroy their own democracy by including people who could not live up to it. They could not forsake the judgment of the civilized world (this will be important as we wait to see if Taney will forsake that judgment to overturn slavery). Taney adds,

“This state of public opinion had undergone no change when the Constitution was adopted, as is equally evident from its provisions and language…”

—So from 1776 to 1787 there was not change in established doctrine. What about after 1787?  Taney nixes the hope that since then there has been any change in doctrine:

“…It would be impossible to enumerate … the various laws, marking the condition of this race, which were passed from time to time after the Revolution, and before and since the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. …The legislation of the States therefore shows, in a manner not to be mistaken, the inferior and subject condition of that race at the time the Constitution was adopted, and long afterwards… To all this mass of proof we have still to add, that Congress has repeatedly legislated upon the same construction of the Constitution that we have given…. ”

—Taney then broadens the scope:

“For if [black Americans were] entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police regulations which they considered to be necessary for their own safety.”

—This is complex. Taney is saying that if his Court overturned slavery to make black Americans citizen, two things would happen: a) this would overturn myriad slave laws already in place and serving as part of the precedent of upholding slavery, and b) those laws were put in place for the protection of black Americans. The latter is an example of the popular idea of the mid-19th century that slavery helped black people by protecting them from their own ignorance and other shortcomings.

So overturning slavery as unconstitutional is the only way to break from precedent, but that is hard to do when precedent seems so well-founded in the princples and doctrine of the wisest and best men of western civilization, freedom-loving men who would clearly grant liberty to anyone who deserved it, and compassionate men who put in place laws to help protect those who did not deserve liberty from themselves. Precedent is also enshrined in dozens of state laws.

Taney is moments from his conclusion; we will cover it in the next post. For now, we see that he began by citing precedent in U.S. law supporting slavery. He then reached back to find precedent for U.S. law in colonial and English law. By doing so, he removed racism from the realm of opinion to the realm of principle. Notice again how his own Court, his own decision, has not made an appearance. Taney was not about the make a ruling on the controversial slavery issue. He knew the uproar it would create if his Court found Scott to be free or if it found Scott to be still enslaved. He resented Congress bailing on its duty to write legislation to solve the slavery debate once and for all by throwing the issue at the Court. He therefore turns back to the original legislators, the Founders, to do the dirty work for everyone and uphold slavery.

Next time: the final decision

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