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