Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘Dred Scott’

Dred Scott and the modern take on the Civil War [OPINION]

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015


One of the modern threads you will find in United States history is the debate on the causes of the Civil War, which mainly hinges on two major points of contention:  first that states had the right to secede from the union legally and second that the Civil War was fought over states rights.  On the second point the counter-argument brought up is “indeed, the right to have slavery in a state” – which sparks another round of debate.  Honestly though I personally find the argument about states rights as the key issue disingenuous as an argument when discussing the Civil War due to the reaction of many Southern radicals to the infamous 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision.  In that Supreme Court case an African-American sued for his freedom, claiming that because he had lived and worked in both a free-state and later free-territory, he and his family should be free individuals.  (A gross simplification but it will do for now.)


The United States Supreme Court, under Justice Taney, found that Scott was not freed, they also found that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction to rule in the case technically and, as a “by the way”, Congress did not have the power to impose regulations in the territories regarding slavery.  Justice Taney had hoped his ruling would result in an end to the debates about the position of slavery within the United States, instead it sparked a massive uproar in the North and the South.


In the North it was felt that now the Supreme Court was only one ruling away from stating that individual states no longer had the right to outlaw slavery within the United States, on some vague notion it was “protected” in the Constitution.  In the South it was felt that Northern citizens should calm down and embrace the legal ruling of the Supreme Court on the matter.  It was also commonly felt that this ruling would open up the western territories to expanded slave ownership and create a new boom for economic development in the region, many Southern slaveholders after the ruling were excited about the idea of gaining access to cheap, productive land that could be tilled by slave labor.


Now to my eye the cornerstone problem with arguing states rights as a Civil War major cause occurs in this period, with Southern Radicals and their writing, whose ideas were upheld by many moderate Southern thinkers, that Dred Scott was the ruling that would pave the way towards a United States that allowed slavery to exist in every state, even those that had voted against it.  Some Southern Radicals called for the day that “slave auctions took place in Boston Commons” – ground zero for abolitionists.

To my eye, had the bulk of Southern opinion in response to those fears by the North been “What?  No, you have a right to not have slaves, we have a right to have slaves, calm down, lets pass a cross-sectional law that says as such.  We’ll hammer out the west out, the Supreme Court kind of pooped a biscuit here” – the Civil War would probably still have occurred but it might have been delayed or lessened in impact.  Certainly it would have sparked less paranoia in the North than the actual Southern reaction which could be summarized as “Hell yes!   Eat it North!  It’s SLAVING TIME”

The United States Civil War was a complex war, with roots resting in sectionalism, power balances within the nation, and economic impacts of slavery, along with the more common issues of property, role of national government, and states rights.  But as a common thread throughout all of that runs the solid line…of slavery.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Dred Scott Decision, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and Slave Power

United States – Civil War – States Rights

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

From a book that I just finished on the period in the history of the United States between Fort Sumter and Bull Run, Dissonance:

“In essence, slavery i snot simply enslavement.  Any monster can enslave another person, chaining him or her to a radiator or a piano leg (of, if one chooses to be cynical, to a variety of social arrangements based on threats).  But for a system of slavery to exist in a society, it must be enforceable by law – like the ownership of any possession – a horse, for example.  Once the necessary laws are in place, a police force is involved: the executive branch of government.

As soon as America had even a single state without slavery (that is, with laws prohibiting the institution), the subject – from a legal point of view – grew unstable.  If a runaway escaped from a slave state to a state without slave laws, did that person become free?  Were law-abiding citizens of a free state obligated to return this human being to his or her “owner” far away – much as they might return a stolen carriage (especially since the out-of-state “owner” could not legally own anyone in a free state)?”

The author goes on from there and describes how the framers of the Constitution argued that indeed, free states had to return runaway slaves, and how the United States government until the 1860s followed a policy of enforcing the return of runaway slaves.  But the analysis provided above blew my mind, for years I’ve wrestled with how to frame a response to people who argue states-rights was the cause of the United States Civil War over slavery – a foolish position but one I’ve had difficulty properly expounding upon in the past.  But this argument does it for me neatly because it takes the argument “it was over states rights – the right to own slaves” to a higher level and actually links it all together for me intellectually.  The issue is the right of the states – in how they interact with each other and with the federal government.  The slave holding states versus the free states were divided fundamentally prior to the United States Civil War and that divide tore across the entire fabric of the nation – for one part of the population a right to property they held, under their law, was simply denied to them in another state.  In turn, for those in free states, they were being asked to uphold in many cases the right of a state other than their own, a right contrary to their own legal code.

An issue that touches on similar legal ground today is the controversy over allowing homosexual couples to marry – traditionally states recognize each others acts of marriage – that is why a married couple who were legally wed in one state can move to another state and do not have to marry each other, nor does changing states negate the standing marriage.  Homosexual marriages challenge that convention, some US states have banned it, others permit it, so what happens when a homosexual couple in a state that permits their marriage then relocates to one that either doesn’t grant such marriages or, worse, banned them.  Take that same controversy today and whip the emotional load associated with the issue up to a fever pitch.  Slavery ignited passions on both sides of the ideological divide to fanatical levels in the early to mid 19th century, as honestly it should have.  For slave holders in the United States anti-slavery sentiments became an attack on their property, culture, way of life, and value code.  For abolitionists in the United States slavery became a barbaric, vile, ancient custom that had no place in the culture or society of the United States and, for the most extreme, was a legal institution so vile those who benefited from it should receive no recourse or compensation when their “property” was freed.

It is an issue that literally tore the country in twain in 1861 and prior to that in the 1850s threaten to cleave the nation several times.  (By the way for those of you who feel passionate when the Supreme Court makes a ruling you disagree with sharply, read up on the Dred Scott decision sometime, took place in 1857.  In it the Supreme Court, in a ruling probably with more politics than law in it, not only ruled slaves could never be taken away from their owners but also: slavery could not be prohibited by Congress in the federal territories, African-Americans had no right to sue in the courts, and African-Americans who were slaves or descendents of slaves could never be US citizens.  Put simply – the Supreme Court took a bundle of political compromises that had held the nation together for decades on this issue, set them on fire, and told half the nation “Screw you bitches, slavery is in, American, and cannot be contained!”  In reaction emotions were quite heated.)

Book Review PortionDissonance: The Turbulent Days Between Fort Sumter and Bull Run by David Detzer, 2006.  Fabulous book, very human, an incredibly skilled way of telling the story of these days with a human face upon them.  I’ll be reading more of Mr. Detzer’s work and I highly recommend his book, even if you are not a history buff.  This is a toe-grit history at its finest, it uses the personalities and stories of the people involved as an engine to tell the broader historical narrative.