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The Dred Scott Case Analyzed by Frederick Douglas
Frederick Douglass Explains the Dred Scott Case
The Meaning of Dred Scott Decision – An Imaginary Q. & A. with Frederick Douglass (Frederick Douglas visits a high school history classroom and fields questions from students.) By Michael M. Nakade
Teacher: Thank you, Mr. Douglass. It’s an honor to have a person of your statue come to our classroom. My students have been excited about meeting you for quite some time. Will you tell us about your background before going into the legal aspect of the infamous Dred Scott Decision of 1857?
Douglass: Certainly. I was born a slave in Maryland. Until my escape to a free state in the North, I lived the life of a slave. I can tell you that it was the most degrading system. It was bad for the colored people, of course. But it was also evil for the slave owners. The system allowed some white folks to treat other human beings in the most inhumane manner. I became an ardent Abolitionist when I gained my freedom in Massachusetts. I traveled all over North and even to United Kingdom to spread the message of ending slavery immediately. After the Civil War, I became an ambassador to Haiti. Now, I’m ready to answer your questions on the Dred Scott case of 1857.
Student 1: Mr. Douglas, what was the Dred Scott case about? I know it was taught as one of the factors causing the Civil War.
Douglass: It began as a dispute over the freedom of one colored man named Dred Scott. He was born into slavery and wished to be free. His master’s family lived in the slave state of Missouri. Then, the family moved to Illinois and Wisconsin Territory, areas where slavery was illegal. After residing in free lands for several years, Dred Scott returned to Missouri with his master’s family. That’s when he thought he was no longer a slave. At that time, there was a rule, “once free, always free.” But the master’s widow refused to accept this rule and insisted that Dred Scott was still her property. The lawsuit was filed, and the case ended up in the Supreme Court, because the widow transferred the ownership document to her brother in New York State.
Student 2: So, what happened to the case? Did Dred Scott win the case?
Douglass: Unfortunately, he lost the case. The Supreme Court simply dismissed Dred Scott’s appeal because the Court said that Scott was never a citizen of the United States and that Scott had no business suing anyone for anything. But, the real issue wasn’t so much about his personal freedom. The real issue was the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s opinion shocked Northerners and Abolitionists. I’ll discuss Taney’s opinion later.
Student 3: So, Dred Scott lost the case and never became free? How tragic! Weren’t there Abolitionists who would offer to buy his freedom?
Douglass: Glad that you asked. Actually, Scott and his wife and two daughters became free when their first owner bought them freedom shortly after the case was dismissed. I wish I could say that he lived happily ever after, but he died of tuberculosis in 1858. Well, at least, he got to taste freedom for a little over one year.
Student 4: Mr. Douglass, I need you to refresh my memory about the Missouri Compromise of 1820 before you get into the real significance of the Dred Scott decision.
Douglass: Sure. The Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court repealed the Compromise, and yes, it is important that you know what that Compromise was about. First of all, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 declared that the Ohio River would be used as a line separating the Slave South and the Free North for future states. But, it was not strictly followed when Missouri Territory asked for statehood in 1818 as a slave state. Back then, Missouri was considered a Northern part of America. The Southern states loved the idea of having Missouri join their side, but the Northern states didn’t like the expansion of slavery into western territories that were above the 36’30’’ latitude. The Congress deadlocked, but Henry Clay came up with the compromise. It was to allow Missouri to join the Union as a slave state, but it stipulated that no new slave state would be created in territories north of 36’30” latitude. By the way, that line was the southern border of Missouri. So, Missouri was like a one time exception. Anyway, another deal in this compromise was to bring in Maine as a free state to maintain the sectional balance. Okay? That’s the quick summary of the Missouri Compromise.
Student 5: The Dred Scott case brought the repeal of this compromise, huh? How so?
Douglass: An excellent question. The Supreme Court at that time was led by Roger B. Taney, and he was a racist Southerner. Six other justices were like-minded. Claiming that Dred Scott and colored people would never be American citizens was one thing, but justices went much further than that. They explained that slaves were nothing more than merchandizes that could be sold and purchased. Since the Constitution of the United States guaranteed the people’s right to property, people should be able to bring their property anywhere in America as they please. Then, they insisted that congress had no right to prohibit the movement of properties. In other words, a slave owner in Texas could move to a territory above the 36’30” North latitude, and the owner would not lose his property just because the Missouri Compromise said that no new slave states would be created in the northern territories. One’s right to property is more important than the Compromise of 1820. So, in essence, the Supreme Court of the United States said that congress could not outlaw slavery within the United States.
Student 6: Did Chief Justice Taney really mean that slaves were the same as any other properties like a house or cattle?
Douglass: That’s right. For him, colored people as a whole was a degraded race, and they were not fit to associate with the whites. In other words, colored people were to remain as properties of whites. Taney completely forgot that there were many freed blacks in the North and the South at the time. They worked in various fields as productive workers. I want to emphasize that not all whites agreed with Taney’s racist view. Many white people were offended by the institution of slavery. That’s why there were many White Abolitionists in the North.
Student 1: When I hear the word, “Abolitionist,” I think of John Brown and others who wanted to have the slave uprising. Is that a fair view of Abolitionists?
Douglass: Well, I actually tried to talk John Brown out of his Harper Ferry raid. It was doomed to a failure from the start. To answer your question, that is not the fair view. There were different types of Abolitionists. William Lloyd Garrison and I advocated the immediate emancipation because the slavery was evil. Some Abolitionists wanted to buy slaves’ freedom so that slave owners could be compensated. Some wanted to ship freed slaves back to Africa. Then, there was Abraham Lincoln in 1860. He was simply opposed to the expansion of slavery. He didn’t openly insist that the slavery in the South had to stop.
Student 2: I get it. The Dred Scott decision was upsetting to all types of Northern Abolitionists because the Supreme Court said territories in the west could become slave states in the future including those territories above 36’30” latitude. It opened a can of worms.
Douglass: When I heard the decision, I was furious. It was as if the entire federal government sanctioned the spread of slavery in America. The reasoning was completely bogus because Taney and other Southern racist justices insisted that the constitution allowed slavery as white people’s right to property. If you read the article IV of the US Constitution, you will easily find out that the Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States. In other words, our congress is empowered to make rules in territories. The Missouri Compromise was not unconstitutional at all. It was created by congress, and congressmen from the north and the south agreed that territories above 36’30” would not become slave states. It is upsetting that the Scott’s case gave those Southern justices the opportunity to remove that agreement. It was as if Taney deliberately ignored some parts of the Constitution to encourage the spread of slavery.
Student 3: I am still not sure how I can see the clear connection between Scott’s suing for his freedom and the cancellation of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Will you explain it to me?
Douglass: A very good question. Taney was offended by Scott’s attorney’s claim that Scott became a freed man when his master took Scott to Illinois and Wisconsin Territory. Does this claim make sense to you? If not, let me ask you this: how could Scott live in Illinois and Wisconsin as a slave? These areas did not allow slavery. Well, then, Scott became free while residing in a free state and free territory. Taney didn’t like the reasoning. He especially hated the reasoning that Scott’s residence in Wisconsin Territory made Scott free. For him, Wisconsin was an open area where the status of free or slave had yet to be determined by its residents. Calling Scott a freed man in Wisconsin bothered him to no end. Taney wanted to make sure that all territories, above or below 36’60” would be open for slavery so that Southerners with slaves could move there and not worry about losing their ownership of slaves. That’s why he used the property right as his card, and that’s how the repealing of the Missouri Compromise became important to Taney.
Student 4: Okay. Now, I can connect all dots. With the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the possibility of expanding slavery to everywhere in America became a real possibility. It must have upset a man like Abraham Lincoln who was opposed to the expansion of slavery into new territories.
Douglas: Yes. It’s the sectional competition 100 times more intensified. The Dred Scott decision of 1857 removed any possibilities of congressional compromises between the North and the South. The bloody armed conflict seemed to be the only option left at that point.
Student 5: With all due respect, I bet there were other possibilities out there to avoid the Civil War. What if the North and the South both agreed to get a clean break?
Douglas: Interesting that you said that. There were some Northern Abolitionists who insisted that the Union be dissolved by letting all slave states leave peacefully. With your and their suggestion, there might be two Americas: one free in the North and the other slave in the South. But, you folks forgot something. Would this suggestion end the evil institution of slavery? It might have avoided a bloody conflict between the North and the South, but how about slavery? Four million colored people were in bondage in the South, being sold and bought at the discretion of owners. What about them? Are you okay with leaving them as they were for indefinite future?
Stuent 5: I am sorry. I didn’t think of that issue. I just wanted to find a way to avoid the war.
Douglass: Avoiding the war only meant that four million slaves would continue to suffer. The evil of slavery had to end at some point. It took the bloody Civil War to end slavery in America. I didn’t see any other way.
Teacher: Thank you, Mr. Douglas. We learned so much about the Dred Scott decision of 1857 and what it meant. Your explanations were awesome.
(The author relied on The Teaching Company’s two lecture series for above work: 1) The History of the Supreme Court, lecture 7, “A Small, Pleasant-Looking Negro” by Peter Irons, and 2) American Identity, lecture 16, “Frederick Douglass – Abolitionist” by Patrick N. Alitt.)