Slavery/ The Dredd Scott Decision term paper 16046

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INTRODUCTION

United States Supreme Court case Scott v. Sanford (1857), commonly known as the Dred Scott Case, is probably the most famous case of the nineteenth century (with the exception possibly of Marbury v. Madison). It is one of only four cases in U. S. history that has ever been overturned by a Constitutional amendment (overturned by the 13th and 14th Amendments). It is also, along with Marbury, one of only two cases prior to the Civil War that declared a federal law unconstitutional. This case may have also been one of the most, if not the most, controversial case in American history, due simply to the fact that it dealt an explosive opinion on an issue already prepared to erupt - slavery. Thus, many scholars assert that the Dred Scott case may have almost single-handedly ignited the ever growing slavery issue into violence, culminating ultimately into the American Civil War. It effectively brought many abolitionists and anti-slavery proponents, particularly in the North, "over the edge".

BACKGROUND

Dred Scott was a slave born in Virginia who early in life moved with his owner to St. Louis, Missouri. At this time, due to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Missouri was added as a slave state, but no state may allow slavery if that state falls above the 36 degree 30 minute latitudinal line. Later, in 1854 under the Kansas-Nebraska Act, states were allowed to vote on whether they will allow slavery or not, known commonly as popular sovereignty. In St. Louis, Scott was sold to an army surgeon named Dr. John Emerson in 1833. A year later, Emerson, on a tour of duty, took Scott, his slave, to Illinois, a free state. In 1836, Emerson's military career then took the both of them to the free Wisconsin territory known today as Minnesota. Both of these states, it is important to recognize, where both free states and both above the 36 degree 30 minute line.

While Emerson and Scott were in Wisconsin, Scott married Harriet Robinson, another slave, and ownership of her was subsequently transferred to Emerson. Dr. Emerson himself took a bride while on a tour of duty in Louisiana, named Eliza Irene Sanford, whose family happened to live in St. Louis. While the slaves (Dred and Harriet) stayed in St. Louis with Eliza and the rest of the family, Dr. Emerson was posted in Florida in 1842, where the Seminole war was being fought. He returned a year later but died within a few months of arrival at home. The slaves continued to work for Mrs. Emerson after Dr. Emerson's death.

In April of 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott filed a suit for "freedom" against Irene Emerson in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County, obviously under the jurisdiction of Missouri law. The established legal principle of Missouri at this time regarding slavery was "once free, always free". In other words, to the Missouri courts, what Scott was doing was perfectly acceptable due to the precedent of the Missouri case Rachael v. Walker (1837), which basically stated that if a slave was taken by his or her master to a free state that slave was then "entitled to freedom by virtue of residence in the free state or territory" [Oxford, 761]. On account of this alone, Scott and his wife would have been freed when the case came to trial in 1847, however there was a problem of hearsay evidence in the case and the judge declared it a mistrial. It was not until three years later in 1850 that the court was able to correct the problem and unfalteringly sided with the Scott's and ordered them freed, citing that once he had been in free territory, he was indirectly freed and remained freed.

By this time Mrs. Emerson had married, moved to New England with her new husband, and left these affairs and ownership of the Scotts to her brother, John F. A. Sanford. After Scott was declared free by the courts, Sanford sought an appeal from the Missouri Supreme Court. In 1852 in, Scott v. Emerson, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the decision by the lower court seeing this case now not as the freeing of one slave but as a threat towards the institution of slavery. Basically, the court replaced the notion of "once free, always free" with an opposite, pro-slavery rhetoric as the new "law" of Missouri. Scott's lawyers then decided to appeal this case to the U.S. Supreme Court as Scott v. Sandford (there was a clerical error in which Sanford's name was misspelled in the court records).

THE FEDERAL CASE

The case went to the Supreme Court in 1856, and was actually, under orders of the Court itself, argued twice - first in February and then in December of the same year - in the exact same manner. Scott's argument was that he in fact had been freed when brought to the free state of Illinois and should no longer be a slave, in effect what the Missouri Circuit Court ruled before being overturned by that state's supreme court. Sanford argued that Scott, because he was a Negro and a slave, could not be a citizen at all and therefore had no right to sue him in either a state or federal court. It is imperative that we realize that when this case came to the Court the question of slavery, particularly in the western territories, had become the central political issue of the decade. People were killing each other over popular sovereignty in Kansas after the Kansas-Nebraska Act which would allow those states to become slave states if the majority chose to. Kansas became known as "Bleeding Kansas" because there was literally a mini-civil war within the state over the issue. Also, in the North, the newly-formed Republican party was vehemently opposed to the spread of slavery and was gaining enormous support.

Initially, it appeared as though precedent and judicial restraint were going to prevail in this case. In Strader v. Graham (1851), the Court had ruled that each state had a right to decide for itself the status of persons under its jurisdiction. The Court was prepared, under these two principles, to dismiss the case and uphold the ruling of the Missouri Supreme Court, of which Justice Samuel Nelson was prepared to write an opinion that would avoid any controversial questions regarding slavery. However, Justice James M. Wayne from Georgia suggested that it was time for the Court to deal with this issue which had previously been avoided by the Court at every step. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney was to write a new opinion, which he delivered on March 6, 1857.

In this case, Taney and six other justices declared Scott to still be a slave for several reasons. First of all, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was effectively declared unconstitutional because congress, according to Taney, did not have the power, under the Constitution, to abolish slavery in certain territories. Therefore, Scott had actually never been free because the act forbidding slavery in the territories he was taken to was unconstitutional. Also, freeing slaves in the territories constituted a taking of property without due process, which violated the Fifth Amendment. This was the Court's first use of the notion of substantive due process. Thirdly, blacks, although seen as citizens of certain states, could not be citizens of the United States, and therefore did not have the right to sue in federal courts. Here the U.S. Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction, and the case could therefore be dismissed. Taney was also under the belief that when the Constitution was written, blacks were universally seen as inferior beings. Taney writes in his opinion that blacks

"…are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the words "citizens" in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of

the rights and privileges which that instrument

provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the

dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them." [Mason, 68]

Finally, and almost contradicting in his previous statements, he asserted that if a slave was taken to a free state or territory and then voluntarily returns to the slave state, then he or she will remain a slave. Here, however, one would think that the term "voluntarily" would not be accurate in describing the reasons why Scott returned to Missouri, being that he was a slave. Taney again uses Strader v. Graham when he discusses "how Scott's status was affected by his residence in Illinois" [Hall, 797]. He stated that if Scott had sued in Illinois, under Strader, that state could have freed him. However, since Scott sued in Missouri, his residency in Illinois could not force the Missouri Supreme Court to set him free.

To many, this case was Taney's attempt to settle the issue of slavery once and for all in favor of the South. He had hoped to, in this decision, "destroy the new Republican party, which so threatened slavery"[Hall, 797]. His attempt to do this, however, backfired.

THE DISSENTERS

This case was split 7 to 2, mostly on ideological lines. The two dissenters to Taney's opinion were Justice John McLean of Ohio and Justice Benjamin r. Curtis of Massachusetts. It was Curtis in particular who disagreed with Taney on just about every point. Curtis said that even before the Constitution was written, there were free blacks who were citizens in at least five states and thus were citizens of the United States at the time the Constitution was adopted. Being that there was no "federal citizenship" clause in the Constitution, the states therefore had created federal citizens automatically by merely becoming a state.

Curtis also asserted, in response to Taney's claim that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, that "Congress has some power to institute temporary Governments over the territory" [Hall 797], because the areas out West were not states yet, merely territories, which was different than a state in many respects, particularly that they had no real central government. Specifically, Curtis pointed to no less than fourteen different instances before the Missouri Compromise in which congress had regulated slavery in the territories. Due to this, congress had the power to enact the compromise merely by "settled practice"[Hall, 212] and therefore "Scott's residence in the areas governed by that congressional legislation had made him a free man"[Hall, 212].

It was this case that so upset Justice Curtis with his colleagues that he resigned shortly after the opinion was published. He then returned to Boston to practice law and actually argued several significant cases before the Court after the Civil War.

PUBLIC REACTION AND AFTERMATH

The reaction in the North was one of complete and utter outrage. This infuriated abolitionists all over the country and many saw it as a miscarriage of justice. In particular, New York Tribune editor and famous abolitionist Horace Greeley, who wrote that Taney's decision was a "collection of false statements and shallow sophistries … a detestable hypocrisy" and a "mean and skulking cowardice"[Catterall, 96]. Further, Taney's attempt to destroy the newly formed Republican party only further strengthened their efforts in the North when their platforms in the 1858 and 1860 elections centered around this case. One notable Republican, Abraham Lincoln, convinced many voters that "Taney's opinion was part of a proslavery conspiracy to nationalize slavery"[Hall, 798]. He tried to convince many that this case was the first step towards the Supreme Court forcing slavery upon the North. He stated in another speech:

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."[Donald, 202]

One of Taney's opinions that particularly enraged the northern abolitionists was his statements regarding the absence of rights for the entire black race, not only slaves. This argument was completely unnecessary in this case an only displayed to many Taney's blatant distaste not only for blacks but for the North and their anti-slavery attitudes. In other words, regarding the text of the case, there was no reason for Taney to include the entire black race in such a specific case regarding the freeing of just one slave.

There is no doubt that this case was a major influence in the cause of the American Civil War. The North was so outraged with this opinion that it chose to ignore the Court altogether and regard as an almost alien institution. The South, in response to the Northern discontent, attempted to defend the case, which ultimately only lead to further hatred and increased partisanship that undoubtedly contributed greatly to the Southern fuel for the war for secession.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, the Dred Scott case was absolutely the most controversial case prior to the Civil War - and perhaps all of American history. After Taney's opinion was published, many now felt that the issue of slavery would never procure a compromise. To many this decision was the first embodiment of a pro-slavery judicial conspiracy and this no doubt caused a violent reaction. This decision, due to the political and social ramifications it had, could not have ever in America's history come at a worse time. In the 1850's what the country needed was guidance and compromise, but instead they only found in the institution of the Supreme Court an uncompromising defense of an explosive issue. In this case, the justices should have considered more thoroughly public opinion and the possible consequences of the Court's actions.

In hindsight, many scholars consider this decision to be perhaps the worst decision ever rendered by the Supreme Court. Not only was it decisively partisan, but it played an enormous role in the provoking of the Civil War, the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil. This case was overturned by the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery altogether, and the 14th Amendment, which pronounced all persons born in the United States to be citizens of the U.S. regardless of color or "previous condition of servitude." Also, this case was the first to employ the substantive due process clause which would be referred to again later in many other cases.

AREAS FOR FURTHER STUDY

There was one specific issue that puzzled me, and I confess I was unable to find any adequate answer to the query. I am referring to how a slave, in this case Dred Scott, was able to marry another slave, Harriet Robinson, in the free territory of Wisconsin, which was well above the 36 degree 30 minute line. Why was she a slave at all? Hadn't the Missouri Compromise, still constitutional in the 1830's, eliminated slavery there? Or perhaps she was not "technically" a slave at all but a free black living in that territory, then why would she marry a slave? And if she did, why would she then fall under the ownership of Dr. Emerson if she had already been freed? This is an area I would suggest further research be employed so that our understanding of the slavery situation in the territories at this time be more fully enhanced.

Word Count: 2566

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