Essay: A Bigger Question: What the Dred Scott Decision Was Really About

Updated: Jan 27

There have always been questions on the right rule which the law should occupy in the lives of individuals who dwell under it. In the United States, the Constitution was set up to be the highest law. However, different and diverse opinions have existed as regards the Constitution in its rule and application to the circumstances of life. Slavery and the unequal respect among persons in the United States was one of the great flaws of the nation’s founding--a central Constitutional issue and paradox. As the moral and legal discussion of slavery was ever heating, a black slave from Alabama put forward a legal case that would force opinions on the issue to come out. The Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott Decision intensively shifted the people’s view of the Court, the Constitution, and Slavery.

Dred Scott was an African American slave who lived in Alabama at the start of his life. Upon his owner moving to Missouri he was sold to John Emmerson, a U.S. Army surgeon. Emmerson was called to go to a post in the Minnesota territory in present-day Wisconsin. Scott, moving there with him, married and settled down relatively comfortably. Due to his career duties, Emmerson returned to Missouri. In 1840, Scott and his wife returned to Missouri as well, and two years later John Emmerson died and his wife inherited his estate--including his slaves. In 1846, Scott sued for his freedom. This lawsuit was centered on the Missouri compromise rule, (which outlawed slavery in the north), and on the doctrine in circuit courts which said “once free, always free;”--this meant that if a negro lived as a free person on free soil, then they should be free everywhere. Scott won and lost some initial suits in court before his ownership was transferred to John Sanford. On nearly identical grounds as the ones before, Scott took his case to a federal court against Sanford. Scott lost initially, but, despite this, made an appeal to the Supreme Court for his case to be heard, the famed Scott v. Sandford. The nature of this case forced the court to decide if African Americans could ever be citizens and if the Missouri Compromise act was Constitutional. In the end, the court ruled that blacks could never be considered citizens, that no state can grant U.S. citizenship, that the Missouri compromise was unconstitutional, and that Congress should have never prohibited slavery in the north to start with. This ruling set on the panic of 1857, moral questions of slavery, and, arguably, the Civil War.

Due to the inherent nature of the Constitution and further reinforcement by the Court’s earlier decision in Maybury v. Madison, the Constitution was set to be the highest law of the land and the Court to be the interpreter of that law in all the cases which were brought to it. Of course, the amendments were apart of the Constitution and so the ruling that African Americans could not be citizens set off a firestorm;--it seemingly trashed the notion that there should be equality among persons and in the courts. From the ruling which was given, it was shown that the majority of the justices valued the idea that slaves were property above the idea that they were people. Given how the Constitution was framed at that time with its various Amendments and cultural understandings, it is difficult for one to say, without any principles hitherto installed in a person, that one side should be right over another. (After all, there was a great desire to protect property from invaders.) The major question--which the court was ruling on--was the unspoken question of what it meant to be human. All the policies and procedures and laws which came after that were merely the consequences of what it meant to be a person.

The court was faced with this one important issue in particular: what determines personhood? Due to the modern cultural eye, it is easy to not see the decision for what it was. In the eyes of the majority opinion (voting against Scott), their opinion and ruling were fully Constitutional. At first, it seems to the modern that this was overtly and entirely unconstitutional: in saying that blacks could not be citizens and that regulation on slavery was unconstitutional-- this seems absurd on its face. However, when given more than one glance, and by not letting one’s thoughts become suddenly hostile because the Justices voted against Scott, it is incumbent on the honest individual to examine the frame of reference which they themselves are working with and the frame of reference which the court hearing Scott’s case was working with.

One of the majority’s main concerns in voting for Scott would be that they would be delegitimizing the supposed “property rights” of an owner. And so, if they declared Scott a citizen and a full person, then he could not possibly be property. Likewise, the majority had to delegitimize the Missouri Compromise because (if blacks were not people and they could be property) it would be unconstitutional if they did not. So then, the question was not a question of the Constitutionality of defending one’s property, nor was it fundamentally a difference between one view of the Constitution against another.

The difference, then, lay in what it means to be human. It would be irresponsible to try to accuse the Justices in Scott’s case of being unconstitutional given the amendments on the Constitution at the time. The Constitution allowed a clear highway for them to declare what they did. If the Dred Scott Decision could be put into one sentence, an adequate one would be, “The majority has decided that the Constitution protects personal property and that blacks are property and not human.” That was the basic ruling: Blacks are not human.

By having a moral issue as great as that of what it means to be human hanging in the background, the U.S. was setting itself up for a nasty dealing with the answer. The majority in Dred Scott’s case did not rule anything unconstitutional, they ruled something completely constitutional but something that was based upon their worldview. The Dred Scott Decision changed the outlook of the court: instead of the court declining the case because it did not even deal with the Constitution, they accepted it and became the judges of morality instead of the law. The Constitution was now a malleable document where one could take their own hitherfore held views and apply them to the text. Slavery was altered because it was now obvious to the aware individual that the court was just the officials’ place of announcing their views on the nature of humanity.

To conclude, the majority’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford was not unconstitutional but was immoral. When one operates in the public sphere without a moral foundation, then the public can only do so much to stop them and they will achieve their goals. When people are not considered people, the law cannot be executed. And such was the circumstances with Scott. It was not that the racists of old hated “black people,” nay, it was that they did not consider them people at all. The Constitution was, in fact, upheld in the Dred Scott Decision, but the correct view of what humanity is was not.

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