Dred Scott & Obergfell v. Hodges

ROGER B. TANEY (1777-1864).  Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, handing down his decision on the Dred Scott case, 1857. American illustration.

ROGER B. TANEY (1777-1864).
Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, handing down his decision on the Dred Scott case, 1857. American illustration.

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Court decisions on Civil Rights matter and sometime soon we will get the Supreme Court decision on the Case of Obergfell v. Hodges, the case that will determine if Marriage Equity will become the law of the land or not. Such cases are important. As I mentioned yesterday freedom for all matters and I completely agree with he words of Abraham Lincoln in regard to liberty that the words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” is a universal standard. That it is the “the standard maxim of free society …constantly spreading and deepening its influence,” ultimately applicable “to peoples of all colors everywhere.” This should be true for all, people including the LGBTQ community. 

Supporters of same-sex marriages gather outside the US Supreme Court waiting for its decision on April 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. The US Supreme Court is hearing arguments on whether gay couples have a constitutional right to wed -- a potentially historic decision that could see same-sex marriage recognized nationwide.  AFP PHOTO / MLADEN ANTONOV        (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Supporters of same-sex marriages gather outside the US Supreme Court waiting for its decision on April 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. The US Supreme Court is hearing arguments on whether gay couples have a constitutional right to wed — a potentially historic decision that could see same-sex marriage recognized nationwide. AFP PHOTO / MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Since it matters so much I am posting a section from my Civil War and Gettysburg Staff Ride text on the Dred Scott decision. If you read it you will find just how chilling and similar the arguments of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney are to those who oppose Marriage Equity and other rights being extended to Gay people. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

As the 1850s wore on, the divisions over slavery became deeper and voices of moderation retreated. The trigger for the worsening of the division was the political battle regarding the expansion of slavery; even the status of free blacks in the north who were previously slaves, over whom their owners asserted their ownership. Southerners considered the network to help fugitive slaves escape to non-slave states, called the Underground Railroad “an affront to the slaveholders pride” and “anyone who helped a man or woman escape bondage was simply a thief” who had robbed them of their property and livelihood, as an “adult field hand could cost as much as $2000, the equivalent of a substantial house.” [1]

In 1856 the Supreme Court, dominated by southern Democrats ruled in favor of southern views in the Dred Scott decision, one pillar of which gave slavery the right to expand by denying to Congress the power to prohibit slavery in Federal territories. Taney’s ruling in the case insisted that “Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution had been intended to apply to blacks he said. Blacks were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Taney did not stop with this but he declared the Missouri Compromise itself unconstitutional for “Congress had exceeded its authority when it forbade slavery in the territories by such legislation as the Missouri Compromise, for slaves were private property protected by the Constitution.” [2]

The decision was momentous, but the judicial fiat of Taney and his court majority was a disaster for the American people. It solved nothing and further divided the nation:

“In the South, for instance, it encouraged southern rights advocates to believe that their utmost demands were legitimatized by constitutional sanction and, therefore, to stiffen their insistence upon their “rights.” In the North, on the other hand, it strengthened a conviction that an aggressive slavocracy was conspiring to impose slavery upon the nation, and that any effort to reach an accommodation with such aggressors was futile. While strengthening the extremists, it cut the ground from under the moderates.” [3]

The decision in the case is frightening when one looks upon its tenor and implications. The majority opinion which was written by Chief Justice Roger Taney was chilling, not only in its views of race, but the fact that blacks were perpetually property without the rights of citizens. Taney wrote:

“Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen?…It is absolutely certain that the African race were not included under the name of citizens of a state…and that they were not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remain subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them” [4]

The effect of the ruling on individuals and the states was far reaching. “No territorial government in any federally administered territory had the authority to alter the status of a white citizen’s property, much less to take that property out of a citizen’s hands, without due process of law or as punishment for some crime.” [5] Free slaves were no longer safe, even in Free States, from the possibility of being returned to slavery, because they were considered property. The tens of thousands of free blacks in the South were effectively stripped of citizenship, and became vulnerable to either expulsion or re-enslavement, something that the legislatures in Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri debated in 1858. Likewise the decision cast doubt on the free status of every African American regardless of residence.” [6]

But the decision had been influenced by President-Elect James Buchanan’s secret intervention in the Supreme Court deliberations two weeks before his inauguration. Buchanan hoped by working with the Justices that he would save the Union from breaking apart by appeasing slave owners and catering to their agenda. “The president-elect wanted to know not only when, but if the Court would save the new administration and the Union from the issue of slavery in the territories. Would the judges thankfully declare the explosive subject out of bounds, for everyone who exerted federal power? The shattering question need never bother President Buchanan.” [7] In his inaugural address he attempted to camouflage his intervention and “declared that the Court’s decision, whatever it turned out to be, would settle the slavery issue forever.” [8]

But Buchanan was mistaken. The case made the situation even more volatile as it impaired “the power of Congress- a power which had remained intact to this time- to occupy the middle ground.” [9] Taney’s decision held that Congress “never had the right to limit slavery’s expansion, and that the Missouri Compromise had been null and void on the day of its formulation.” [10]

The Court’s decision “that a free negro was not a citizen and the decision that Congress could not exclude slavery from the territories were intensely repugnant to many people in the free states” [11] and it ignited a firestorm in the north where Republicans now led by Abraham Lincoln, decried the decision and southerners basked in their judicial victory. Southerners were exultant, the Richmond Enquirer wrote that the Court had destroyed “the foundation of the theory upon which their warfare has been waged against the institutions of the South.” [12] Northerners now quite rightly feared that an activist court would rule to deny their states the right to forbid slavery. As early as 1854 Lincoln posed the idea that the Declaration of Independence was the standard maxim of free society …constantly spreading and deepening its influence,” ultimately applicable “to peoples of all colors everywhere.” [13]

After the Dred Scott decision Lincoln warned that the Declaration was being cheapened and diluted, he remained insistent on this point, he noted:

“Our Declaration of Independence was held sacred by all, and thought to include all” Lincoln declared, “but now, to aid in making the bondage of the Negro universal and eternal, it is assaulted, and sneered at, and construed, and hawked at, and torn, till, its framers could ride from their graves, they could not recognize it at all.” [14]

Lincoln attacked the decision noting that Taney “insists at great length that negroes were no part of the people who made, or for whom made, the declaration of Independence or the Constitution.” But as Doris Kearns Goodwin notes “in at least five states, black voters action on the ratification of the Constitution and were among the “We the People” by whom the Constitution was ordained and established.” Lincoln acknowledged that the founders “did not declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say that all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity.” But they dis declare all men “equal in ‘certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’…They meant simply to declare the right, so the enforcement of it might follow as circumstances permit.” [15]

Not only that, Lincoln asked the logical question regarding Taney’s judicial activism. Lincoln and other Republican leaders “noted that all slavery needed was one more Dred Scott decision that a state could not bar slavery and the objective of Slave Power to nationalize slavery would be accomplished.” [16] How long would it be, asked Abraham Lincoln, before the Court took the next logical step and ruled explicitly that the:

“Constitution of the United States does not permit a state to exclude slavery from its limits?” How far off was the day when “we shall lie down pleasantly thinking that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State?” [17]

Lincoln discussed the ramification of the ruling for blacks, both slave and free:

“to aid in making the bondage of the Negro universal and eternal….All the powers of the earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him; ambition follows, and philosophy follows, and the theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison house;…One after another they have closed the heavy doors upon him…and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.” [18]

Frederick Douglass noted that “Judge Taney can do many things…but he cannot…change the essential nature of things – making evil good, and good, evil.” [19]

Lincoln was not wrong in his assessment of the potential effects of the Dred Scott decision on Free States. State courts in free-states made decisions on the basis of Dred Scott that bode ill for blacks and cheered slave owners. In newly admitted California the state supreme court ominously “upheld a slaveowner’s right to retain his property contrary to the state’s constitution.” [20]

A similar decision by a New York Court was being used by slave-states to bring that issue to the Taney Court following Dred Scott. “In 1852 a New York judge upheld the freedom of eight slaves who had left their Virginia owner while in New York City on their way to Texas.” [21] The Dred Scott decision brought that case, Lemon v. The People back to the fore and “Virginia decided to take the case to the highest New York court (which upheld the law in 1860) and would have undoubtedly appealed it to Taney’s Supreme Court had not secession intervened.” [22] Even non-Republican parties such as the democrats could see the writing on the wall. The national publication of the Democratic Party, the Washington Union “announced that the clear implication of the Dred Scott decision was that all state laws prohibiting a citizen from another state, either permanently or temporarily, were unconstitutional.” [23]

Notes

[1] Goodheart, Adam. Moses’ Last Exodus in The New York Times: Disunion, 106 Articles from the New York Times Opinionator: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln’s Election to the Emancipation Proclamation Edited by Ted Widmer, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, New York 2013 p.15

[2] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 189

[3] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.291

[4] Guelzo Allen C. Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2012 p.91

[5] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening pp.91-92

[6] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.142

[7] Freehling, William. The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2007 p.115

[8] Ibid. Freehling, The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 p.109

[9] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.291

[10] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.210

[11] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.279

[12] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 190

[13] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.139

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.93

[15] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 190

[16] Gienapp, William The Republican Party and Slave Power in The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition edited by Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.81

[17] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.211

[18] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.139

[19] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 190

[20] Ibid. Gienapp The Republican Party and Slave Power p.81

[21] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.181

[22] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.181

[23] Ibid. Gienapp The Republican Party and Slave Power p.82

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