The 1857 Dred Scott decision is unquestionably the worst decision ever by the Supreme Court. In Dred Scott vs. Sandford, Dred Scott, a slave, had been purchased by John Emerson, an army surgeon, and when Emerson died, Scott, along with Scott’s wife and children, were left to his wife. Scott had lived with the surgeon for an extended period of time in Wisconsin Territory, which was legally slave-free, before eventually moving back to St. Louis. After his master died, he attempted to buy his family’s freedom from Emerson’s wife for an equivalent of $8,000, and she refused, which forced him to take legal recourse. The Chief Justice, Roger B. Taney, hoping to end the discussion of slavery permanently, wrote in the official ruling not only that Scott did not have the right to citizenship in Missouri, but that he, as a descendant of an African slave, could never be a citizen, and therefore didn’t have the right to sue in court. While Taney may have tried to issue a decisive blow to the abolitionist movement, he further polarized both sides of the abolitionist debate, and in effect pushed the country closer to war. Looking back, it shows the extent of racism, and how it permeated every aspect of American society. The Dred Scott Decision, while not vital to the initiation of war between the North and South, but it added considerable fuel to the fire.
While racism is apparent in the blunt denial of Scott’s humanity as a black person, it runs deeper. When I researched what legally constituted a black person in the antebellum era, I found that in many states they relied on whether you were a maximum of 1/4 or 1/8 black, depending on the state, or simply whether you looked white. While these antebellum laws were racist, as time went on they only got worse. Tennessee in 1910, later followed by other states, instituted variations of the one-drop rule. This meant that if you had a “drop” of African blood in your veins, you were legally black. These views and laws had been proposed as early as 1853, but they had never gotten quite the traction to pass. This prevailing cultural view still is widely accepted – it takes less black ancestry to define you as black than white ancestry to define you as white. This legislation exposes just how astoundingly racist the South has historically been. By their logic, White blood is representative of purity, and any black blood rendered the whole subject, in this case a human being, impure, and thus, in their eyes, black. Black blood not only represented impurity, but also it was seen as unacceptable; that no level of white heritage could redeem the shame brought on by black heritage.
While this level of racism may seem crazy to us, the explanation is fairly simple. The whites of the South were eager to create and exploit a lower class, and with the instruments of legislation they intended to construct it. Many racists would stretch and bend the limits of reason in order to accommodate a bigger, more demonized and more subordinate lower class. The more they did this, the bigger the social and economic advantage they had. This baseless racism had very little to do with race, and much to do with the creation of a lower class. The same logic applied in Taney’s decision. While the Constitution never takes a stance on racism, and the Northwest Ordinance fully favored Scott, Taney took the side of his master, saying that since the Constitution was made when slaves were commonplace, it favors slavery. While his argument is flawed, it wasn’t based in reason in the first place. The intent was to dock Scott of his humanity and his rights as a human being regardless of rationality.
Information Sources : http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2933.html http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/DredScott.html http://digital.wustl.edu/d/dre/history.html
Image Sources : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:DredScott.jpg