Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Dred Scott Decision: 151 Years Later

Roger B. Taney

It happened 151 years ago today.

Dred Scott was a slave from Missouri whose owner had taken him to Rock Island, Illinois, a free state, and then to Fort Snelling in the Minnesota Territory, where the Northwest Ordinance had excluded slavery. After his owner passed away, Scott sued for his freedom, citing his earlier residency in a free state and a free territory. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

On this date in 1857, Roger B. Taney, the eighty year old Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, issued his infamous opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford.

Taney declared that Scott was not a free man. First, residency in a free territory was meaningless because Congress never had the authority to exclude slavery from any territory; therefore, the imaginary line drawn during the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.

Second, Taney wrote that Scott’s residency in a free state was also meaningless because slaves were not citizens, they were property, and the U.S. Constitution protected private property in both free and slave states.

Furthermore, Taney delcared that African Americans could not be citizens of the United States, nor could they sue in federal court because the founding fathers had never included them in the nation's founding documents.

CLICK HERE to read Taney's opinion, as well as the opinions written by the other six justices.

Abraham Lincoln commented on the controversial decision on June 26, 1857. Lincoln sided with the dissenting opinions of Justices John McLean and Benjamin R. Curtis. He strongly disagreed with Taney's assertion that African Americans were excluded from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Around this time, Lincoln began talking about a conspiracy to nationalize slavery. It went something like this:

The Dred Scott decision declared that slavery could not be excluded from a territory.

Lincoln believed the Court would soon use the logic to declare that slavery could not be excluded from a state.

When this hypothetical decision came down, the Court would declare free state constitutions, which prohibited slavery from its borders, unconstitutional.

Lincoln feared that northern cities like Chicago would be transformed into slave markets.

Lincoln continued to develop his "conspiracy theory." By 1858, he implicated current and past presidents, members of the U. S. Supreme Court, as well as his opponent for a seat in the U. S. Senate, Stephen A. Douglas.

Take a moment to reread Lincoln's "House Divided Speech." If you had heard this speech a century and a half ago, would you have become a conspiracy theorist?

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