“Shocks, Throes, and Convulsions””Slavery is founded on the selfishness of man’s nature–opposition to it on his love of justice. These principles are in eternal antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely as slavery extension brings them, shocks and throes and convulsions must ceaselessly follow.” (Abraham Lincoln)1America in 1857 was “A Nation on the Brink” as defined by Kenneth Stampp in his book with the same title. Relationships between the Northern and Southern states had been strained for decades, but during the 1840s and especially the 1850s, the situation exploded. Pro-slavery and antislavery forces clashed frequently and fatally in “Bleeding Kansas,” while the presidential election of 1856 turned ugly when southern states threatened secession if a candidate from the antislavery Republican party won. Into this charged atmosphere stepped a black slave from Missouri named Dred Scott.
During the 1850s in the United States, Southern support of slavery and Northern opposition to it collided more violently than ever over the case of Dred Scott, a black slave from Missouri who claimed his freedom on the basis of seven years of residence in a free state and a free territory. When the predominately pro-slavery Supreme Court of the United States heard Scott’s case and declared that not only was he still a slave but that the main law guaranteeing that slavery would not enter the new Midwestern territories of the United States was unconstitutional, it sent America into convulsions. The turmoil would end only after a long and bloody civil war fought primarily over the issue of slavery and its extension into America’s unorganized territories. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford helped hasten the arrival of the American Civil War, primarily by further polarizing the already tense relations between Northerners and Southerners.Scott had spent extended periods of time with his owner, Dr. John Emerson, in Fort Armstrong, Illinois, Fort Snelling, Wisconsin Territory, Fort Jessup, Louisiana, and in St.
Louis. During his travels, Scott lived for a total of seven years in areas closed to slavery; Illinois was a free state and the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had closed the Wisconsin Territory to slavery. When Scott’s decade-long fight for freedom began on April 6, 1846, he lived in St. Louis and was the property of Emerson’s wife.Scott declared that he was free by virtue of his residence at Fort Armstrong and Fort Snelling. He had strong legal backing for this declaration; the Supreme Court of Missouri had freed many slaves who had traveled with their masters in free states. In the Missouri Supreme Court’s 1836 Rachel v. Walker ruling, it decided that Rachel, a slave taken to Fort Snelling and to Prairie du Chien in Illinois, was free.
By the early 1850s, however, sectional conflict had arisen again uglier than ever, and most Missourians did not encourage the freeing of slaves. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled against Scott in 1852. He then took his case out of the state judicial system and into the federal judicial system by bringing it to the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Missouri.
At this point in the case, Scott’s possession had been transferred to John Sanford which changed the case from Scott v. Emerson to Scot v. Sandford different spelling due to a clerical error. The case resumed in 1854 in the United States Circuit Court.
Judge Robert W. Wells, “a slaveholder who nevertheless regarded slavery as a barrier to progress,” presided over the trial2. Though Scott was deemed to be a citizen, Sanford countered that even if Scott had gained his freedom while residing in Illinois, he had regained his slave status upon returning to Missouri. This defense proved successful and the jury decided in favor of Sanford.The next step for Scott was to take his case to the highest tribunal in the country: the United States Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court first heard the case of Scott v. Sandford in early 1856, but ordered a reargument for the next term. By this time, Congress had renewed the debate over Congressional power to regulate slavery in the territories in light of the recent bloody conflicts in Kansas. Both sides began to view the issue as a decision for the Supreme Court, and not for Congress, to make.
Senator Albert G. Brown, a Democrat from Mississippi, commented on July 2, 1856:”My friend from Michigan Senator Lewis Cass and myself differ very widely as to what are the powers of a Territorial Legislature – he believing that they can exercise sovereign rights, and I believing no such thing; he contending that they have a right to exclude slavery, and I not admitting the proposition; but both of us concurring in the opinion that it is a question to be decided by the courts, and not by Congress.”A few weeks later, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican from Illinois agreed: “I grant you that an unconstitutional act is not a law; but I do not ask, and will not take your Democrats’ construction of the Constitution. The Supreme Court of the United States is the tribunal to decide such questions, and we will submit to its decisions; and if you do also, there will be an end of the matter” 3.
“When reargument before the Court began on December 15,” wrote Kenneth Stampp, “the potentially broad political significance of the case had become evident, and public interest in it had increased considerably”. Indeed, “by Christmas 1856, Dred Scott’s name was probably familiar to most Americans who followed the course of national affairs.”4When the Court met for the first time since the reargument to discuss the case on February 14, 1857, it favored a moderate decision that ruled in favor of Sanford but did not consider the larger issues of Negro citizenship and the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise. At first, Justice Nelson was chosen to present the majority opinion, but because he avoided the more controversial and important issues Chief Justice Roger B. Taney was named as the writer of the true majority opinion for the court. It was an opinion that would include everything under consideration in the case, including Negro citizenship and the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise. On March 6, 1857, the nine justices filed into the courtroom in the basement of the U.
S. Capitol, lead by Chief Justice Taney. Taney was almost 80 years old, always physically feeble, and even weaker as a result of the effort he had put forth to write the two-hour-long opinion; therefore, he spoke in a low voice that Republicans deemed appropriate for such a “shameful decision”5 against Scott. He first addressed the question of Negro citizenship, not only that of slaves but also that of free blacks:”Can a Negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and 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?” 6One of the privileges reserved for citizens by the Constitution, argued Taney, was the “privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified by the Constitution.”7 Taney’s opinion stated that Negroes, even free Negroes, were not citizens of the United States, and that therefore Scott, as a Negro, did not even have the privilege of being able to sue in a federal court. Taney then turned to the question of the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise. The territories acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Taney stated, were dependent upon the national government, and the government could not act outside its framework as set forth in the Constitution. Congress, for example, could not deny the citizens of the new territory freedom of speech.
Similarly, Congress could not deprive the citizens of the territory of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law,” according to the Fifth Amendment. Taney continued: “And an act of Congress which deprives a citizen of the United States of his liberty or property, merely because he came himself or brought his property into a particular territory of the United States, and who had committed no offense against the laws, could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law.” 8Taney also stated that “the status of slaves who had been taken to free States or territories and who had afterwards returned depended on the law of the State where they resided when they brought suit.” Scott had brought suit in Missouri and hence he was still a slave because Missouri was a slave state. Taney ruled that the case be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction and sent back to the lower court with instructions for that court to dismiss the case for the same reason, therefore upholding the Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Sanford.Four years after Chief Justice Taney read his infamous Scott v. Sandford decision, parts of the proslavery half of the Union had seceded and the nation was engaged in civil war. Because of the passions it aroused on both sides, Taney’s decision certainly accelerated the start of this conflict.
Even in 1865, as the long and bloody war drew to a close with the Northern, antislavery side on top, a mere mention of the decision struck a nerve in the Northern Congress. Clearly Scott v. Sandford was not an easily forgotten case. That it still raised such strong emotions well into the Civil War shows that it helped bring on the war by hardening the positions of each side to the point where both were willing to fight over the issue of slavery. The North realized that if it did not act swiftly, the Southern states might take the precedent of the Scott case as a justification for expanding slavery into new territories and free states alike. The South recognized the threat of the Republican party and knew that the party had gained a considerable amount of support as a result of the Northern paranoia in the aftermath of the decision.
In the years following the case, Americans realized that these two mindsets, both quick to defend their side, both distrustful of the other side, could not coexist in the same nation. The country realized, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, that ” house divided against itself cannot stand.’ . . . This government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free” 9. Scott’s case left America in “shocks and throes and convulsions” that only the complete eradication of slavery through war could cure.