Dred Scott v Sanford

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Dred Scott

The Dred Scott v. Sanford Decision 

As we all know, during the creation of our nation’s government, the Founding Fathers did very little to end slavery.   In fact, during this country’s conception, the future of slavery flourished because the United States Constitution defined blacks as 3/5ths of a whole person thereby encouraging the continuation of slavery.   To a person of color, the depiction is horrific because one can only imagine how difficult life under the system of slavery must have been.  As a result of such thinking, slaves were defined as property—not people, just non-human entities which simply existed to serve those in power.

The case of Dred Scott v. Sanford is often cited as a clear illustration of some of the effects of the numerous injustices blacks endured during those times.

Born in or around 1795 in Virginia, Scott was initially the property of slave master, Peter Blow.   However, in 1830, Scott and his wife, Harriet, were sold to Dr. John Emerson, a surgeon in the United States Army.  When Emerson died in 1843, Scott attempted to purchase his and his family’s freedom from Emerson’s widow, Irene.  She refused his request and insisted that he began working for another Army officer.

During his ownership under the Blow family, Scott was relocated to St. Louis, Missouri where he was then sold to Emerson.  Under Emerson’s ownership, he frequently traveled to Free states (as determined by Congress) such as Illinois and Wisconsin Territory (which is now Minnesota) and had actually lived at the Fort Snelling Army base for an extended period (located in Wisconsin Territory).

Upon the refusal of Emerson’s widow to allow him to purchase his freedom, Scott then filed his suit in the St. Louis Circuit Court in an attempt to obtain freedom for him and his family with the help of a local lawyer.

Ultimately, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court in 1857 with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivering the majority opinion.  The Court ruled:

·         That any person of African descent, whether slave or free, was not a citizen of the United States as defined by the Constitution, and therefore could not bring forth lawsuits with the Federal Court system.

·         That the Act of 1820 (commonly known as the Missouri Compromise) was unconstitutional because Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slave ownership within territorial lands.

Additionally the Court ruled that by determination of the Ordinance of 1787 (within the sector of what was then defined as the Northwest Territory), non-white individuals could not claim freedom or citizenship.

After the decision, Scott and his family were returned to Irene Emerson.  In the meantime, she remarried a prominent abolitionist who in turn convinced her to return he and his family to the Blow family.  Now opponents to slavery, the Blow family liberated Scott and his family on May 26, 1857 which was less than three months after the Supreme Court decision.

In the United States, the ultimate reward as a member of our society is to be deemed a citizen.  Moreover, freedom and citizenship go hand in hand in our country and while various ethnic groups have died and fought for these rewards since the beginning of our inception as a nation, people of color have had to continue to fight for the very ideals upon which this nation is supposedly based.  To be told, based on the Dred Scott ruling, that because of your ethnicity you are not a citizen of the United States, regardless of whether you are born in the confines of this nation or not, is nothing short of horrific.

While I do not believe this law was misinterpreted, I cannot express how ill-conceived I am convinced it was.  To understand the irrationality of its conception, one has to understand how the law itself was designed to benefit Whites only, not people of color and therefore when applied, is technically correct in its interpretation.  However, its conception overall is derived from the United States Constitution itself and because it only recognized blacks as 3/5ths of a person based on the prejudices and bigotry of our Founding Fathers who created it, it is ill-conceived; demonstrating very clearly how hypocritically-based our nation was and sometimes continues to be when developing laws which affect the civil rights of those born in the United States and those desiring to become functional citizens of this nation.

 To review the actual case, please see Scott v Sanford.

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5 Responses to Dred Scott v Sanford

  1. jamietraxler says:

    Though I agree 100% that the slave trade was unacceptable and obviously immoral and wrong, I have a hard time blaming a previous society as completely irrational and hypocritical. Twosome extent- yes they completely are. But we also have to take a step back and look at what the “founding” members of America were trying to accomplish. They created this document which by no means is perfect, but still stands true in its fundamental beliefs even today. I believe it was Maya Angelou who said “you do the best you can, until you know better, then when you know better, do better.” This might help put into perspective that perhaps the people genuinely didn’t know better. And when it was brought to light that slavery was wrong, did better. I think this statement perfectly relates to all aspects of America and American history. We are doing the best we can, until we know better. And once we’ve realized that we know better, through laws and amendments and civil rights activism, we are slowly trying to do better.

  2. bewalke3 says:

    This is a very interesting viewpoint. I completely agree with you. The law was originally designed to benefit whites, and count out everyone else. We still have a long way to go to reach true equality.

  3. valenciaaz says:

    I think something to remember is that during the time of exploration and “conquering” other nation’s we need to understand what the underpinnings of social thought was and where it was conceived. Prior to the slave trade, only countries (Portugal, France, England, Spain, etc.) who recognized the Pope of the Catholic Church as their authority and Vicar of Christ had a right to conquer and establish colonies in the name of the Church. In fact Columbus was commissioned to not only discover new lands but to “convert heathens and savages” to the Catholic faith.

    Eventually the Pope prohibited the enslavement of “human beings.” When the English merchant’s went to break the bad news of being prohibited from enslaving people, members of warring tribes in Africa stated “Oh snap! Really? No problem the members of the tribes you are enslaving are not even human! It’s all good! Now, how many do you want to buy (Modern terms)?” I believe history demonstrates that the greatest crimes against humanity are perpetrated by those who have dehumanized a group of people. Slavery at the time was a big issue throughout Europe and especially England. About that time many social, economical, and religious issues surrounded England at that time.

    Many of those that came to the United States from England, in some instances, were fleeing religious persecutions. Some came for the financial benefits of acquiring property, while some wanted to expand there interests in commercial trade. The problem was, the land they wanted had “people.” Well, the land they were moving to was not recognized by the Pope as a “legitimate” nation, therefore, it was open for anyone to conquer. In this case, England had a right (as far as the church was concerned) to conquer the Americas.

    It is for these reasons that the “Founding Fathers” believed that it was not only lawful to commit genocide (in some cases) and enslave people, but that their actions were supported by God. Ironically, most of the “Founding Fathers” were Protestant. So it may lead one to ask “what the heck?!” I think many of them had been conditioned to believe what they did about people. It has taken roughly 150 years for women and minorities just to be recognized as “people.” The word “citizen” has many layers of confusion. What makes a person a citizen? While this subject alone could lead to a greater discussion, I just wanted to offer some food for thought in trying to understand the dynamics and history of dehumanizing human beings in our country.

    It is only when ALL people are accepted as human can we see social justice.

  4. mfmyers says:

    I thought President-elect James Buchanan’s role in the case was pretty interesting (in a negative sense). From the link: “Buchanan hoped the decision would quell unrest in the country over the slavery issue by issuing a ruling that put the future of slavery beyond the realm of political debate.”

    “Buchanan later successfully pressured Associate Justice Robert Cooper Grier, a Northerner, to join the Southern majority in the Dred Scott decision to prevent the appearance that the decision was made along sectional lines.” Separation of powers, what was that again?

    The United States has a pretty solid history of “lets hope this just works itself out.” One wonders if this reflects a more cultured attitude towards how change takes place or is just a hallmark of apathy. The founders seemed to have hoped that the issue of slavery would be decided in a time of cooler heels, which is why they put in the qualifications about slavery not being touched for two decades. Buchanan seemed like he was more concerned with the byproducts of the issue rather than the issue itself, much like Lincoln after him.

    Even certain members of the Court, in this instance, though it better to just dismiss the case than rule on it. America 101: How to Pass the Buck.

  5. xotxitl says:

    I loved the quote cited above, “you do the best you can, until you know better, then when you know better, do better,” and I couldn’t agree more with it. However I disagree when applying it to politicians, because our politicians know better but they are yet to do better. History tends to repeat itself and yet we are still doing the same mistakes. Though the immigrant story today is not even close to the suffrage of African American, there are still some of the issues being fought. An immigrant now a day still runs the risk of being slaved, abuse by its owners (those who sponsor their visa or smuggled them through), while trying to achieve citizenship for his human rights to be recognized, but yet our politicians failed to do anything about it. Do they know better? Yes, they do or at least I hope they understand through the number of dead bodies this issue is leaving behind that this is not right. Do they do better? Maybe we should ask a farm worker or an Asian manicurist, what is the government doing for them to cease their “visa sponsors” or smugglers’ threats and abuse. Maybe our politicians leaders are doing the best they can, but is not because they don’t know any better but because they have other interest buying then out and that is where the hypocrisy lies on.

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