On this day in 1857, the nine-member Supreme Court of the United States handed down one of the most infamous decisions in its 230-year history. The case involved a slave named Dred Scott who sued for his freedom.
Originally named Sam, Scott was born a slave in the state of Virginia. In honor of his deceased brother Eldred, he changed his name to “Dred.” His first owner, Peter Blow, raised him with his sons, who later would help him sue for freedom.
But when Peter died in 1832, Dred was sold to Dr. John Emerson. Emerson was an army surgeon who traveled from base to base — Virginia, Alabama, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin and Louisiana. During all this time, even when they were living in the free states of Illinois and Wisconsin, Emerson got additional money by sub-leasing Dred, his wife Harriet and their two daughters to other masters.
During this time, Dred was also saving his money to one day purchase his family’s freedom. Finally, back in Missouri, Dr. Emerson died in 1843. At that point, Dred and his family became the inherited property of the widow, Eliza Emerson. Soon Dred offered her the full amount to buy freedom for his family. But she refused.
It is hard to imagine the injustice and outrage of the situation. Put yourself in their shoes. For no other reason than the circumstances of their birth, a man and his wife and children had been spending all their time and energy enriching others for five decades.
Despite this disadvantage, they had managed to save enough to buy four slaves and so purchase their own freedom. But even their money had no power; their fate as a family lay entirely in the arbitrary whims of the owner. Repeatedly he offered the money for freedom. Repeatedly Eliza refused to sell.
With no other choices available, Scott filed a petition with the Circuit Court of St. Louis County, Missouri, on April 6, 1846. After 15 months of legal wrangling, the suit was thrown out on a technicality. Scott was unable to prove that Eliza was his owner.
How is that for irony? The court left legal ownership of an entire family in the hands of Eliza because Dred could not prove that she legally owned him.
Eventually, there was a retrial. Then, nearly four years after filing suit, Dred Scott and his family were awarded their freedom. But it was short-lived. Eliza immediately filed an appeal with the Missouri Supreme Court. Two years later, on March 22, 1852, the decision was reversed, and the Scott family was returned to slavery under Eliza.
Scott appealed this ruling in the U.S. Circuit Court of Missouri. He argued two major points: First, that both the “Missouri Compromise” of 1820 and the “Northwest Ordinance” of 1787 outlawed slavery in Illinois and Wisconsin and meant that he was legally freed when his owner brought him to these places. Second, that the Missouri Supreme Court reversed its own precedent when it overturned the ruling that had granted him freedom.
The state of Missouri argued that since Scott was currently living in Missouri, he was legally a slave and could not sue for freedom. If he wanted his freedom, he should have sued while living in a free state.
When the federal circuit ruled against Scott, he appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). The Court heard arguments on two separate occasions, first in February and again in December of 1856.
Finally, on March 6, 1857, SCOTUS handed down its infamous landmark ruling: 1) Slaves are property and have no rights; 2) Freed African Americans are not citizens and have no right to use the federal court system; and 3) Federal laws prohibiting the spread of slavery into the western territories are unconstitutional.
The first prong of the ruling effectively declared slaves to be nonhuman. The obvious humanity of the slaves had always been a strong point in the favor of abolitionists. Arguing from the Declaration of Independence, they merely had to point out that “all men are created equal.” From this, it was obvious that slaves had a moral claim to be treated equally under the law.
By declaring that slaves have no rights, the Court denied what was obvious to everyone — that these men are human beings who have unalienable rights. No court and no government can either give or remove rights that are unalienable. These rights come directly from God and do not depend on human laws.
The second prong of the Dred Scott ruling went further still. While the first spoke of people based on their current slavery, which could be removed by the owner granting freedom, the second made their disadvantage permanent and unchangeable.
Famously, Abraham Lincoln had an answer for this second ruling. He reminded Americans that the courts were only granted the power to decide how the law applied to the specific cases in front of them. They had the power to declare that Dred Scott was not a citizen (no matter how unjust that decision was), but they could not force anyone to treat other freed slaves in the same unjust way.
So, Lincoln directed the U.S. Patent Office to grant patents to freedmen. He directed the Passport Office to grant passports to the same. In short, in every way that he could, Lincoln saw to it that his administration recognized freedmen as equal citizens under the law. This is an excellent reminder to legislators, governors and presidents today in the face of unjust overreach by the courts.
It was, however, the third prong of the Dred Scott decision that was the cause of the worst bloodshed ever seen on American soil. By declaring duly passed federal laws unconstitutional, the Supreme Court outraged and saddened decent people all over America. These people had been working tirelessly for decades to bring a peaceful end to slavery by compromise.
Already in 1787, the year that the U.S. Constitution was ratified, they had succeeded in passing laws that prohibited new states from becoming slave states. Then, in 1820, they compromised again and allowed Missouri to become a slave state while Maine became a free state. This compromise also drew an imaginary line westward from the southern border of Missouri and prohibited any territory north of that line from being slave territory in the future.
But now, the Supreme Court had unilaterally wiped out these painstaking compromises. Humanitarians were rightly outraged. Worse, they got the unmistakable message that compromise was useless. No matter what peaceful solutions they might work out in future negotiations, they could be wiped out by nine unelected men in black robes. Civil war was on the horizon, and the Supreme Court cut off at the knees the efforts of everyone working to avert it by compromise.
Today, as we observe the 161st anniversary of the Dred Scott decision, let us take the opportunity to do three things. First, we mourn the terrible injustices done to African Americans by people who refused to see the obvious, our common humanity. Second, let us mourn the loss of our own humanity whenever we fail to recognize the humanity of any person, from human embryos to those suffering with Alzheimer’s or Down Syndrome.
Finally, let us learn the lesson taught by Lincoln of how to stand uncompromisingly in the face of tyranny wherever it may be found. Others may rule and act unjustly, but nobody, not even the Supreme Court of the United States, can force you or me to act unjustly in the exercise of our duties to family, to Church and to one another.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.