Sectional tension in the 1850s
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Dred Scott v. Sandford
Unit 5: Learning Objective G
- [Narrator] Hi this is Kim from Khan Academy. Today we're learning more about the landmark Supreme Court case Dred Scott versus Sandford. Decided in 1857, the ruling in the Dred Scott case inflamed sectional tensions over slavery, which had been growing ever more heated over the course of the 1850s. Originally a case about whether one man ought to be free, Dred Scott versus Sandford transformed into a case about African-American citizenship and the future of the institution of slavery itself. To learn more, I sought out help of two experts. Christopher Bracey is a Professor of Law at the George Washington University School of Law. He's an expert in US race relations, individual rights and criminal procedure. Timothy Huebner is the Irma O. Sternberg Professor of History at Rhodes College and the author of Liberty and Union: The Civil War Era and American Constitutionalism. Professor Bracey can you take us through a little bit, just who was Dred Scott and why did he bring this case? - [Christopher] So Dred Scott was born around 1800 and was the slave of Peter and Elizabeth Taylor Blow. In 1818, Peter Blow decides to move his family and Dred Scott to Alabama where he'd bought a cotton plantation. That didn't go so well, so he sells the plantation and moves the family and Dred to St. Louis, Missouri, where he'd purchased a boarding house called The Jefferson Hotel. - [Timothy] And that period really was a period during which the nation was arguing over the status of slaves and the rights of slaveholders and the future of slavery in new western territories. And this issue came up in a very significant way and a very controversial way in the question of the future of slavery in the territory and ultimately the state of Missouri. After two years of arguing over this, finally in 1820 and 1821, a sort of compromise was set out by members of Congress. North of the southern border of Missouri, with the exception of the state of Missouri, slavery would be banned. - [Christopher] In 1830, Elizabeth Taylor Blow dies and Peter himself dies two years later. But before he does, he makes an arrangement to sell Dred to an Army physician by the name of Dr. Emerson. Dr. Emerson is an Army physician, so he's gonna be stationed in a lot of different places, not just in the slave state of Missouri. In fact, it turns out that Dr. Emerson's first posting with Dred takes him to Fort Armstrong, which is located in Rock Island, Illinois and Illinois is of course a free state. Under both federal law and Missouri law as understood at the time, Dred would have lost his slave status and become a free man as soon as he stepped foot onto free territory. This was known as the Extra-territorial Emancipation Doctrine. - [Timothy] It was perfectly legal and perfectly possible for a slave sojourner, a slave who had been taken into a free state or free territory, to file suit for his freedom. - [Christopher] Dr. Emerson marries Eliza Irene Sandford of St. Louis. Dr. Emerson eventually dies in 1843 and he leaves the entire estate, including the Scotts, to Mrs. Emerson. Mrs. Emerson decides she would like to hire Dred out to make some money for herself. Rather than be hired out, Dred offers to purchase his own freedom, and the freedom of his entire family. But Mrs. Emerson refuses to allow Dred to buy out the freedom of his family. So Dred Scott files a civil lawsuit, what was called a Freedom Suit back then, in the Missouri State court. And his claim was that Mrs. Emerson was falsely imprisoning him and his family. - [Timothy] And he was able to do this with the help of the sons of his formers owners. - [Christopher] The lawyer is being paid by the children of Peter and Elizabeth Taylor Blow, - [Narrator] Wow. Dred Scott's first master. In the meantime you have a new development, Mrs. Emerson has remarried to Republican congressman Calvin Chaffee, from Massachusetts and he can't be a slave owner and still be a Republican congressman from Massachusetts. So Mrs. Emerson transfers title of the Scotts to her brother John Sandford who is a resident of New York, with business ties in St. Louis. - [Timothy] Now it was eligible for the case to go into Federal Court in that it involved people who lived in two different states. - [Christopher] So now you might be thinking, "Well, filing a lawsuit against your purported master, that's pretty brave stuff." But as it turns out freedoms suits of this nature were not that uncommon, particularly in border states where the slavery question was hotly disputed. Indeed there were some 300 or so of these freedom suits that were filed in Missouri during the period in which Dred Scott filed his case. Many people viewed the Missouri Compromise as not so much of a compromise but as something that was forced upon the slave states. And then you've got the Kansas-Nebraska Act which gave similar autonomy to those areas to decide the slavery question and whether or not it would be introduced into those territories. - [Narrator] Interesting, so people in the North who opposed slavery or at the very least didn't want slavery to expand, would have been looking in the 1850s and saying, "Hey I thought we already decided this, there wouldn't be slavery north of this line and now you're saying maybe Kansas and Nebraska could be slave states." - [Timothy] Right and that was a huge issue in national politics because northerners are starting to grow very suspicious of southerners on the slavery issue. They're starting to speak of what they called the slave power, that southern slaveholders held all of this power in Washington and that they were running the show. And that this 1854 act had made it possible for slavery to potentially expand into an area where previously it had been banned. - [Christopher] And you really do get this escalation of tension and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which basically forced requirements upon free states to ensure the longevity of the slave states by requiring them to undertake certain behaviors and the return of fugitive slaves only escalated the tension and concern about the status of slavery in American life. - [Narrator] Alright so we're in this incredibly tense time of the 1850s with the slavery question yet unanswered and Dred Scott and his case gets to the Supreme Court. So how does the Supreme Court rule on this? - [Christopher] In a seven to two ruling, the Supreme Court held that Dred Scott was not a citizen of the United States, and so therefore he could not bring his freedom suit before federal court, which is really a jurisdictional question. But then the Court also goes on to invalidate the Missouri Compromise, despite finding that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. - [Timothy] What happens when the case is being argued is that one of the arguments that's introduced is this idea that when Scott had been taken into free territory, he wasn't necessarily free because the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. And so what the Court ends up doing is not only ruling on the status of Scott, but also on the status of slavery in these federal territories in the west and the extent of the powers of Congress over slavery in the west. - [Narrator] Interesting so Chief Justice Roger Taney is then leading the Supreme Court and he, I guess, leads the reasoning about this case. So what were some of the arguments that he eventually accepted and made in his decision? - [Timothy] Chief Justice Taney's a very interesting figure. He had been on the court for many years. He, in his early years, had been moderately anti-slavery, had freed most of his own slaves, and had made anti-slavery statements. But by 1857 Taney reflected the larger change that had taken place within his political party, Taney was a Democrat. And the Democratic party had become more Southern dominated and more pro-slavery. And Taney then, by 1857, really is a symbol of pro-slavery Southern thought. - [Christopher] Justice Taney's opinion is somewhat notorious. He makes a series of arguments and one is legal, the others are really not legal arguments as I'll explain. What he starts out by saying is that just because you're a citizen of a state, that does not make you a citizen of the United States. He says basically the federal government has exclusive authority to decide who is a citizen of the United States. Then he makes a second argument and he says even if Dred Scott were a citizen of the state of Missouri he would not be a citizen of the United States because he's black. And what he meant by that is that the word citizen as used in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence categorically excluded members of the Negro race. - [Narrator] This is fascinating because it seems to me like Justice Taney may have been ignoring a long history of free people of color in the United States who had voting rights, who had property rights. - [Timothy] He was and that was part of the criticism of the majority opinion that comes in, especially the dissent written by Justice Benjamin Curtis. Curtis had the lengthier of the two dissents and the more thorough legal argument because, as you point out, that in five states at the time of the founding, that African-Americans did exercise the right to vote that was a sign or some sort of an indication of their status as citizens. And so the argument made by Justice Curtis then, is that Taney's reading of history was that the founders had not intended for African-Americans to be part of the people or the citizens that were referred to in the text of the US Constitution. - [Christopher] What Justice Taney has done here has basically created a blind spot for himself and he goes on to point out that this is not his belief, this belief in Negro inferiority, but he said that it was a fixed and universal belief within the civilized portion of the white race, he said it was an axiom, a truth. But what's interesting is that he says this without a citation. He says that these aren't his views, these are the views of the framers, the great men who were high in literary accomplishment, high in their sense of honor. He said that they perfectly understood the language that they used, and how it would be understood by others. And there's this great quote in the opinion where he says that they, the framers, 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. What Justice Taney has done here, is he's attempted to rewrite history. - [Narrator] So how the American people respond to the Dred Scott decision at large? Where they generally for it, or aghast by it? - [Timothy] Well as you might expect, things were split exactly down the middle. What we see in the South is white Southerners believe that the ruling is a vindication of what they had been arguing. Southerners had been arguing for many years going back to John C. Calhoun, that Southerners and that Southern slave holders had a bundle of rights. And they argued that they had the right to own slaves as property in the southern states. They argued that they had a right to recapture fugitive slaves who escaped into the north and they also argued that they had a right to take slaves into the west. And so Southerners then feel that the Court and the US Constitution are on their side. You see a lot of folks in the north who are hostile to what the Court has done, because once again they see it as further evidence that the Court is dominated by the Democratic party, by the slave power. And many of these folks then are going to be members of a new party, and that was of course the Republican Party. - [Christopher] I think the abolitionists were furious and I think Frederick Douglas' statement calling it a brazen misstatement of facts of history, a scandalous and devilish perversion of the Constitution resonated and even future Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, that same summer that the case was decided, went out and denounced it publicly. - [Narrator] So Lincoln of course wins the election of November 1860 which becomes a precipitating event of the Civil War. Do you see the Dred Scott decision as being a really important cause of the Civil War? - [Timothy] Yeah so these things are all linked, absolutely. Think about the ruling by Taney in Dred Scott ruling that slave-holders rights are absolute. Taney rules African-Americans have no rights, slaveholders have total rights. This makes it possible for Lincoln to rise as a political leader in the north because he has something that he can strongly criticize. Lincoln basically makes the argument that the founders had hoped for slavery to disappear ultimately. And Taney's making exactly the opposite argument. So the interesting thing is, if you think about how this story ends, it ends in March of 1861 when Abraham Lincoln is sworn-in as the 16th President. And who swears him in? Of course Roger B. Taney. So between the time when Lincoln was elected in November of 1860 and the time when he takes that oath of office in March of 1861, seven Southern slave-holding states, those are the states that leave the Federal Union first. Four other states of course will join them, but not until after the Civil War has already started. - [Narrator] So there's no Compromise of 1860, instead what we get is a four-year long Civil War where more than 620,000 Americans are killed. And at the end of that war, the North, the United States is victorious and slavery in the 13th Amendment is abolished forever. How does the end of the Civil War relate back to the Dred Scott case? - [Timothy] The 13th Amendment ends slavery, the 14th Amendment has to undermine or overturn the other part of the Supreme Court's ruling which was this issue of the rights of those who previously had been held as slaves. And the 14th Amendment is going to do that work by stating that all who were born in this country, by virtue of their birth here are citizens and that they have rights that will be protected by the Federal government. And if you think about it, what has changed, what has shifted, is the whole national discourse of rights, from the emphasis on the rights of slaveholders that we see in 1857, to an emphasis on the rights of those who previously had been held as slaves. And arguably then what we see during the Civil War and Reconstruction is the advent of a new discourse focusing on human rights. And that I would argue is profoundly significant. - [Narrator] So what happened to Dred Scott after this? Did he and his wife live to see the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery? - [Christopher] Unfortunately Dred Scott did not. The Supreme Court renders its decision in 1857 but he dies, unfortunately in 1858. His wife Harriet though, lives on to about 1876. So she did live to see the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery. The Dred Scott case made clear, at the time, that the struggle for citizenship and of course the later struggle for civil rights, is about the desire to be treated with equal dignity, to be viewed as possessing equal humanity. And what is perhaps most moving, I think, about the Dred Scott case is the dignity with which the Scotts carried themselves throughout the entire ordeal, despite the Court's best efforts to deprive them of that dignity. It was ultimately Dred and Harriet who gained the respect of the nation. And it was the inhumanity of the Court and the institution of slavery that was laid bare for all to see. - [Narrator] So we've learned that the ruling in Dred Scott helped bring about the Civil War by further dividing the North and South over the issue of slavery. Opposition to the case's outcome propelled Abraham Lincoln to the national political stage and opposition to Abraham Lincoln propelled slave states to secede after his election as President. But the Dred Scott case was also about the lives and fates of one man and his family. Although Dred didn't survive to see the end of slavery and the passage of the 14th Amendment granting equal citizenship to African-Americans, his family lived to see the rewards of the struggle he began. To learn more about the Dred Scott case, visit the National Constitution Center's interactive Constitution and Khan Academy's resources on US history.