Dred Scott Decision.On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, of the United States supreme court, handed down an opinion which perhaps occasioned more comment from the press and more excitement among the people than any other decision ever rendered by that court. The events leading up to the decision had their beginning more than twenty years before. Dr. Emerson, a resident of Missouri, was appointed surgeon at the military post at Rock Island, Ill., in 1834, and upon assuming his duties there took with him a negro slave named Dred Scott. The next year the doctor was assigned to duty at Fort Snelling, Minn., whither Scott accompanied him. Not long after his arrival at Fort Snelling, Dr. Emerson bought a negro girl named Harriet, who subsequently became the wife of Scott. A child was born to the couple at Fort Snelling, and in 1838, Dr. Emerson returned to Missouri, taking the colored familyfather, mother and childalong with him. A few years later Dr. Emerson died, and in 1848 Scott, who in the meantime had been sold to a man named Sandford, brought suit in the circuit court of St. Louis county, Mo., to establish his freedom.
In filing this suit, Scott's contention was that the Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in Illinois; that the Missouri Compromise expressly prohibited it in that part of the Louisiana purchase north of the line of 36° 30', and that his residence at Rock Island and Fort Snelling annuled all rights of ownership which his master might have had prior to the removal into free territory. The circuit court decided in his favor, but an appeal was taken to the Missouri supreme court, which in 1852 ruled against him, on the ground that his return to Missouri, without resistance or objection on his part, restored to his master any right of ownership which might have been forfeited by the temporary residence in territory declared free by the acts cited. The case was then taken to the United States circuit court, where in 1854 the state supreme court was sustained, though it was admitted that Scott was a citizen and could be a party to an action in the Federal courts.
As soon as this decision was rendered, several prominent anti-slavery lawyers offered to carry the case through the United States supreme court, without charging Scott any fees for their services, and the result was the decision of Mr. Taney, which was concurred in by the other members of the supreme bench except Justices Curtis and McLean. The first question to be decided was that of citizenship. In this part of his opinion the chief justice said: "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 was framed and adopted. But the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior race, and altogether unfit to associate with the white races, 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 for his benefit."
Having thus elaborately settled the question of citizenship adversely to Dred Scott and all his race, Judge Taney next proceeded to efface the Missouri Compromise as follows: "It is the opinion of the court, that the act of Congress which prohibited a citizen from holding and owning property of this kind in the territory of the United States north of the line therein mentioned, is not warranted by the constitution, and is therefore void." And by referring to the case of Strader et al. vs. Graham, where a slave had been taken from Kentucky to Ohio and returned, he disposed of the Ordinance of 1787 in a similar way.
The immediate effect was that the slaveholders of the South found reasons for rejoicing in the decision of the court in thus declaring unconstitutional the laws prohibiting slavery within certain bounds; that slaves, being property, were entitled to protection under the constitution; and that Congress had no power to enact laws prohibiting the slave holder from taking his chattels anywhere he pleased. This part of the opinion was regarded by many of the leading attorneys of the country as extra-judiciala sort of obiter dictumand without direct bearing on the case at issue, but it gave encouragement to the slave power to know that a majority of the members of the supreme court held such views.
Then came the reaction. Goldwin Smith says: "By this presentation of the iniquity, naked and in its most repulsive form, Taney did no small harm to the party which he intended to aid. It has been said that slavery plucked its ruin on its own head by its aggressive violence. It could not help showing its native temper, nor could it help feeding its hunger of land, insisting on the restoration of its runaways, or demanding a foreign policy such as would fend off the approach of emancipation. But Taney's judgment was a gratuitous aggression and an insult to humanity at the same time, for which, supposing the Southern leaders inspired it, they paid dear. If the slave was mere property, his owner might be entitled to take him anywhere, and thus slavery might be made national. The boast of a daring partisan of slavery might be fulfilled, that the day would come when men might be bought and sold in Boston as freely as any other goods. The issue, which all politicians had striven to keep out of sight, was presented in its most startling and shocking form."
For a moment the abolitionists of the North were paralyzed. Then they seized with avidity upon the expression, "The negro has no rights which the white man is bound to respect," and made it their slogan. Although this expression had been used by Mr. Taney in the nature of a quotation, merely to show the social status of the black race during the century preceding the founding of the American republic, it was part of the decision of the court, and there is little room for doubt that the use of this "war cry" had much to do with crystallizing the anti-slavery sentiment in the Northern states.
In Kansas, as elsewhere, the first effect of the opinion was to cause elation among the friends of slavery. When, on Aug. 15, 1857, Prof. Benjamin Silliman and forty-two citizens of Connecticut sent a memorial to President Buchanan, calling his attention to the fact that Gov. Walker was employing the army in Kansas to force the people to obey laws they did not make, the president sought shelter behind the Dred Scott decision, declaring that "Slavery existed at that period (when the Black Laws were passed by the territorial legislature) and still exists in Kansas under the constitution of the United States. This point has at last been finally settled by the highest tribunal known to our laws. How it could ever have been doubted is a mystery." Again, in his message of Feb. 2, 1858 (see Slavery), he reiterated and emphasized the factas he viewed itthat Kansas was slave territory under the constitution. With the reaction came a tide of free-state emigration, and there is no question that the Dred Scott case played a part in making Kansas a free state, as it also did in precipitating the Civil war.Pages 544-546 from volume I of Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc. ... / with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Standard Pub. Co. Chicago : 1912. 3 v. in 4. : front., ill., ports.; 28 cm. Vols. I-II edited by Frank W. Blackmar. Transcribed May 2002 by Carolyn Ward.
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