Thursday, March 06, 2008

March 6

Today is the anniversary of the Dred Scott decision, by which the US Supreme Court determined that Congress did not have the power to restrict slavery anywhere in those territories acquired after 1787. Issued in March 1857, the ruling denied Dred Scott the right to sue for his freedom in federal court.

Scott was an enslaved man from Missouri who had lived for several years in Illinois and the Wisconsin territory, where slavery was prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In denying Scott the opportunity to sue for freedom, the Court also ruled the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. In the notorious majority opinion, Chief Justice Roger Taney argued that blacks had never been intended to receive any federal rights “the white man was bound to respect,” and that it was inconceivable that blacks should ever have been intended by the Founders to enjoy equal citizenship. Such a status, he pointed out, would have endowed blacks with
the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, singly or in companies, without pass or passport, and without obstruction, to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased at every hour of the day or night without molestation, unless they committed some violation of law for which a white man would be punished; and it would give them the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.
Among other things, Taney explained, these rights would have produced “discontent and insubordination” among both slaves and free men, thus “endangering the peace and safety of the State.”

Eighteen months after the decision was rendered, Dred Scott died of tuberculosis. The decision that bears his name, of course, became one of the decisive strokes in the background to the American Civil War, which would kill 600,000 people within the decade.