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The US Supreme Court: Dred Scott Decision

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New York Post Classroom Extra March 6, 2012 by: Robin Wallace

The US Supreme Court upholds the practice
of slavery with the Dred Scott decision

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The African slave trade, and the practice of slavery, is often referred to as the darkest and most shameful chapter in the history of the United States. Within the history of slavery itself, one of the darkest episodes is a decision rendered by the U. S. Supreme Court 155 years ago today.

Known commonly as the Dred Scott decision, it reaffirmed the acceptance and practice of slavery in America at a time when the abolitionist movement – the movement to abolish slavery – seemed to be gaining ground. Specifically, on March 6, 1857, the US Supreme Court ruled, by a strong majority, that black people, regardless of whether they were slaves or free, were not considered citizens under the U.S. Constitution, the law of the land.

In the 1800’s, the movement to abolish slavery was growing. America was also expanding westward, adding new territories and new states. The debate over whether new territories or states would be “slave states” or “free states” was a hot one. Slave owners wanted to bring their slave labor west with them, while opponents were vehemently against the expansion of a practice they were hoping to abolish. Congress tried to settle the matter with a law known as the Compromise of 1850, which gave the residents of the new territories the power to decide the issue of slavery themselves by a vote. However, slavery was such a contentious issue that this system proved to be extremely problematic.

Against the backdrop of this unrest, a slave named Dred Scott decided to use the court system to sue for his freedom, and that of his family.

Although Scott had been born into slavery in Virginia, he lived for extended periods of time, as a slave serving two different masters, in the free territories of Illinois and Wisconsin, eventually settling with the widow of his second master in Missouri. He tried to buy his freedom from the widow, but she refused the offer.

Scott sued for his freedom. He lost his first case because he could not prove that the widow of his second master actually owned him. But, the Missouri Supreme Court granted a retrial, and in 1850, the court ruled that Scott was free. However, a year later, the court reversed its own decision. Scott took his case to federal court in Missouri, and that court held up the lower court’s decision. Scott appealed his case all the way to the US Supreme Court, the highest court in the land.

Of the nine justices that were sitting on the Supreme Court in 1857, seven, including Chief Justice Roger Taney, were staunchly pro-slavery, and their decision reflected those views. In the majority opinion authored by Taney, the court ruled that because black people were not and could not be citizens, Scott did not have the right to sue in court. The court ruled that Scott was the property of his owner. Taney wrote that neither the authors of the Declaration of Independence, nor the framers of the U.S. Constitution, intended for blacks to be given the equality and freedom those documents guaranteed white people. He wrote that the founding fathers believed that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.”.

After the ruling, the sons of Dred Scott’s first master, who had paid some of his legal fees, purchased Scott and his family from their second master’s widow, and set them free. Dred Scott died nine months later, a free man.

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