Deep vs. Scant Knowing

Image by William Murphy from Pixabay

What was the Dred Scott court case about? Hearing it mentioned in a podcast discussion, I decided to find out what made it so important. I had a vague idea but lacked understanding of its significance. Landmark cases, those repeatedly mentioned, are those that address significant matters, in this case, segregation. U. S. Supreme Court rulings are American’s report card on how we are progressing towards the goal stated in the Preamble of the Constitution, the country’s guiding light.

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Ever since the signing of the Constitution, we are continually tweaking our laws to represent better who we want to be, to grow into our better angels. The Supreme Court, for the most part, follows established decisions. But there are times when a precedent is “demonstrably erroneous.” During Dred Scott’s lifetime, a growing number of people were speaking up for the voiceless, the slaves. They saw it as a contradiction to what we as a country espoused to be, free and just. For the slaves, the ticking of the clock to freedom promised in the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal,” must have felt hopelessly slow. Nevertheless, “The Arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”   

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 1857 (7-2 decision)   

The two questions before the Supreme Court were: (1) Does the Constitution give African Americans the right to sue in federal Court? (2) Does Congress have the power to prohibit slavery in free territories (that would become Minnesota, Colorado, Oregon, etc.)? 

The basis for Dred Scott’s case (1846) was because he had lived in a free state and a free territory for a prolonged period. He filed his suit under Missouri’s state’s law, “Once free, always free.” 

Dred Scott was born into slavery (1799) in Virginia. His master, Peter Blow, moved to Alabama and then to St. Louis, both slave states, where he ran a boarding house. 

Illinois entered the Union in 1818 as a free state. 

The Missouri Compromise (1821) prohibited slavery in the territories north and west of Missouri’s southern border. People on both sides of the slave controversy saw the compromise as profoundly flawed. It was a bandaid on a wound that continued to fester. Slavery was an enormously problematic area of American politics that would eventually lead to a civil war. Thomas Jefferson, our third president, wrote in a letter to a friend, “This momentous question, like a fire-bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror.”

When Peter Blow died (1832), Scott was sold to John Emerson, a military surgeon, and he moved with him to Illinois, a free state. There, Scott fell in love with Harriet Robinson, a slave (1836). Emerson and Major Taliaferro, Harriet’s owner, consented for them to marry. When Dr. Emerson was transferred to Louisiana, the Scotts remained behind in Illinois, hired out to an army officer. After Emerson married Irene Sandford, the Scotts joined them, moving from a free state to a slave state. 

John Emerson died in 1843, and his wife Irene was heir to his estate. Three years later in the St. Louis Courthouse, likely with assistance from their church and local abolitionists, Dred and Harriet Scott filed separate petitions for their freedom. The district court ruled in favor of Irene Emerson. The Scotts continue dwhat would be a decade-long fight for their liberation. 

The Circuit Court of St. Louis County awarded Dred Scott and his family—they had two daughters— their freedom. Irene Emerson appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court that overturned the circuit court’s decision on a technicality. Scott turned to the U.S. Supreme Court (1854).  

Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote the Court’s judgement (1857): (1) “The Constitution does not consider slaves to be U.S. citizens. Rather, they are constitutionally protected property of their masters.” and (2) the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and that Congress never had the power to prevent the spread of slavery.

Three months after the Court’s decision, Mrs. Irene Emerson, perhaps exhausted by the legal fights, sold Scott and his family to Taylor Blow, son of Peter Blow, who then gave the family their freedom. Dred found work as a porter in a St. Louis hotel. He died from tuberculosis a year later, on September 17, 1858.

How people felt about the decision depended on where they lived, South or North. 

New Orleans Daily Picayune, March 21, 1857

“We cherish a most ardent and confident expectation that this decision will meet a proper reception from the great mass of our intelligent countrymen; that it will be regarded with soberness and not with passion; and that it will thereby exert a mighty influence in diffusing sound opinions and restoring harmony and fraternal concord throughout the country. . . .”

Chicago Tribune, March 12, 1857

“In this horrible hand-book of tyranny it is asserted, 1st. That according to the past century of opinion, adopted as law in the Constitution, black men have no rights which white men ought to respect, but may be reduced to slavery, bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise; 2nd. That the negro race is excluded by the Constitution from the possibility of being citizens, and from having any personal rights or benefits. …”

Abolitionists hoped the Dred Scott case would end the debate about slavery in the territories. Instead, the divide between the North and South grew wider. With the election of Abraham Lincoln, the southern states seceded from the Union and created the Confederate States of America. The Civil War began in 1861.

The 13th Amendment (1865) ratification abolished slavery in the United States, ending the debate.  

The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) gave citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States regardless of race, which in effect reversed the Court’s ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford.

The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) prohibits the federal government and each state from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” There is no reference to gender. Women had to wait another 50 years for the 19th Amendment to vote. 

History is a mammoth story that leads up to you. Knowing history makes you a better person, one with greater tolerance of individual differences. Churchill lamented, “history keeps repeating itself,” and Einstein said, “insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting different results.” Awareness of history allows us to view present problems with information about the past granting opportunities to correct prior mistakes. Knowing history is to appreciate the joy and suffering that was necessary for us to progress humanly and morally. Deeper knowledge of history is a road map to guide us as we move forward toward truth and courage.