compos mentis, "of sound mind"

With permission granted begrudgingly from the author, I published her articles in this blog in response to pleas from her fans--okay, mostly aunts and uncles--for ready access to her cogitations. As the humble president of her fan club, I am delighted to oblige.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Dred Scott Decision

The "debating society", through legislation from the bench, has wreaked havoc before...

by Elizabeth Petrik, April 2004

When it was handed up to the Supreme Court, the Dred Scott case seemed a simple matter. Dred Scott, a black slave, was demanding his liberty on the basis that his owner had kept him in bondage for five years while living in free territory. Beneath its straightforward surface, however, the political status of blacks, the conflict between the rights of slave owners and the establishment of popular sovereignty, and the power and credibility of the Supreme Court all rode upon Scott’s bid for freedom.

When it was presented with the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court immediately made the obvious but significant ruling that Scott, as a black, had no right to file a lawsuit. This decision effectively denied citizenship to all blacks in America. Thus, even free black people technically had no more rights under the Constitution of the United States than would a wild horse, for instance; while no one officially owned the black or the horse, either could be wantonly captured and put in a position of servitude or abused, and neither would have any legal recourse for redressing his or its grievances. The Supreme Court’s affirmation that black Americans were a subhuman class in the eyes of the law served both to frighten the free blacks living in the United States at the time and to anger abolitionists, who saw this part of the decision as another setback to liberating the slaves.

Having ruled that Scott’s suit was not legal because of his race, the Supreme Court could have dismissed the case, thereby sending only a minor ripple of discontent through the troubled conscience of the nation. The southern majority of the judges, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, however, saw fit to justify its decision further by proclaiming that under the Fifth Amendment, Scott, as property, could not be taken from his master without due process of law. In effect, a slave owner could legally take his slaves anywhere—including onto free soil—without their ceasing to be his possessions. This statement was radical because it nullified both the already-repealed Missouri Compromise, which had stated that slavery would be prohibited above 36º30’ north, and its successor, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed incoming states to determine the legality of slavery on their soil by a popular vote. If, as the Supreme Court ruled, slave owners could bring their slaves into any state or territory regardless of its free soil status, the idea of having the will of the people determine slavery’s legality in a region was meaningless. This part of the Dred Scott decision was opposed not only by abolitionists but also by advocates of popular sovereignty. Southerners, on the other hand, rejoiced at the ruling as a victory for slavery.

Their delight was to be short-lived, however, for another unexpected consequence of the Court’s pronouncement soon shook the nation. Before the Dred Scott decision, the rulings of the Supreme Court, while disputed by various parties, had generally been held to be the legal interpretations of the Constitution. A great deal of the North, however, maintained that the arguments used by the Court in the Dred Scott case were to be considered merely the opinion of a body of men, a “southern debating society,” and were not to be taken as America’s official stand on the slavery question. This blatant disregard for the established tradition of judicial review both angered and frightened southerners. How could the South be expected to coexist with a body that refused to follow its own rules and seemed determined to destroy the southern way of life?

The tension between the North and the South was drastically heightened by the Dred Scott decision. While the Supreme Court’s rulings that blacks were not citizens and that slaves were legal property no matter where they were held appeared to be a victory for the South, it actually served to stir the pot of bitterness between the North and the South and to call into question just how far the judiciary branch could go in interpreting the law before it ceased to be the law at all. Differences over the Dred Scott decision neatly split the nation into two contending sectional factions and helped to set them on the road to the Civil War.


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