The Dredd Scott

the United States the decision in this case was one of the most damaging statements in the history of the

Supreme Court, involving the citizenship of a black person in the United States, and the

constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise in 1820. The history of a black man named Dredd Scott

states that he was a slave originally owed by a family by the name of Blow, which ended up selling him

in 1833 to an army surgeon by the name of Dr. John Emerson of St. Luis. Due to his involvement as an

army surgeon, Emerson was transferred to numerous places such as Rock Island, Illinois, Fort Snelling in

the Wisconsin Territory then back to St. Louis in the end of 1838. Scott had accompanied Emerson

throughout this period. Emerson had taken Scott to places that forbidden slavery according to the

Missouri Compromise of 1820 and Scott was even allowed to marry during this!

time period on free territory, his companion being a woman who was also a slave owned by Emerson. As

Emerson and Scott had returned to St. Louis, a territory where slavery was legal, Emerson died and Scott

was left to his widow, who eventually gave Scott back to his original owners, the Blows. Henry Blow,

Scott’s original master, was opposed to the extension of slavery into the Western territories, and Blow

lent Scott’s residence on free soil in Illinois and Wisconsin Territory had made him a free man. In

1846, Dredd Scott brought suit in the state court on the grounds that residence in a free territory

released him from slavery. A lower state court had found to be in favor of Scott, but in 1852, the

Supreme Court of Missouri ruled that upon his return to territory where slavery was legal, the status of

slavery was reattached to him and therefore he had no standing before the court. The case was brought

before the federal circuit court, which took jurisdiction, but held against Scott. The case was taken on

appeal to the Supreme Court, where it was argued at length in 1855 and 1856 and finally decided in 1857.

The decision handed down by a majority of the vote of the court was that there was no power in the in the

existing form of government to make citizens slave or free, !

and at the time of the formation of the US Constitution they were not and could not be citizens of the

United States in any of the states. Scott was ruled still to be a slave, and not a citizen of Missouri

or any US state for that matter, from which it followed that he had no right to sue in the federal

courts. Now it was not so much the court’s decision that was so damaging, but the series of opinions

that Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and how we look at it. The court had announced its

decision on March 6, 1857. By a 7 – 2 vote, the court ruled against Scott. Of the seven opinions

written by the members of the majority, Chief Justice Taney’s is considered to present the forma; view of

the Court, and I think that these are the most damaging statements in the case. Taney first dealt with

the issues of whether Dredd Scott or any slave or descendant of slaves could be a slave s could be a

citizen under the US constitution. It was Taney’s opinion as the !

majority of the court that: “they (slaves) are not, and that they are not included, and were not

intended to be included, under the word “citizen” in the US constitution, and can, therefore, claim none

of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United


Taney drew this conclusion from an examination of historical practices and the intent of the

Framers of the Constitution. “Slaves,” he said,” had more than a century before the Constitution came

into existence been regarded as being of an inferior order, and all together unfit to associate with the

white race, in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the

white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro may justify and lawfully be reduced to slavery for

his benefit…this opinion at that time was fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white

race.” Even the words “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence did not adhere to

the black race, as Taney spoke of those authors, “the authors of that declaration perfectly understood

the meaning of the language that they used, and how it would be understood by others; and they knew that

it would not, in any part of the civilized would, be supposed to embr!

ace the Negro race, which by common consent, had been excluded by centralized governments and the family

of nations, and doomed to slavery.”

Taney even went to the extent of pronouncing Negroes as only property, nothing more. “The

unhappy black race were separated from the whites by indelible marks, and laws long before established,

and were never thought of or spoken of except as property, and when the claims of the owner or the profit

of the trader was supposed to need protection. After releasing so many damaging statements, Taney still

felt it necessary to discuss whether Scott’s residence in Wisconsin Territory made him a free man.

Taney, noting the Fifth Amendment providing that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or the

property without due process of law, concluded that, “an Act of Congress, which deprives a citizen…of

his liberty or 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 due process of law.” Therefore, Taney

said, the portion of the Missouri Compromise that prohibited slavery in th!

e Northern portion of the Louisiana Purchase was void and Dredd Scott had not been freed by his

residence in Illinois. Taney said that, “because Scott was a slave when taken into the state of Illinois

by his owner, and was there held as such, and brought back in that character, his status, as free or

slave depended on that of Missouri, not Illinois.” The word of this courts opinion on slaves and their

citizenship spread across the land at an incredible rate, educing great criticism by newspapers and

abolitionist. The ruling and the opinions stated in the case fueled the controversy over slavery, and is

believed to have caused so much anger between the North and the South, to be one of the causes of the

Civil War. Beside this, the Court was believed to have taken the biggest impact itself. An editorial in

the North American Review in October 1857 stated, “The country will feel the consequences of this

decision more deeply and more permanently in the loss of confidence !

in the sound judicial integrity and strictly legal character of their tribunals, than in anything beside;

and this, perhaps, may well be accounted the greatest political calamity which this country, under our

forms of government, could sustain.

In another case that the Taney court handled, Charles River Bridge versus Warren Bridge in 1837

bundled together a remarkable array of constitutional questions including the power of a state

legislature to control economic development, the place of monopolies in American economic life, the

impact of technological changed on the law and the role of the Supreme Court in supervising state public

policy. The case involved the Proprietors of Charles River Bridge filing a bill against the Warren

Bridge Company for building a bridge identical to theirs and in the same place as theirs. The Charles

River Bridge was chartered by the Massachusetts legislature, giving it the power to collect tolls, but

saying nothing about an exclusive right to carry traffic over the Charles River. A generation later,

responding to the need of increased traffic carrying capacity between Boston and its northern territory,

the legislature chartered another bridge, which was eventually to become a free b!

ridge, thus destroying the value of the original bridges character. This bridge, the Warren bridge,

would be taking away the Charles River bridges profits (toll). They claimed that the erection of Warren

bridge was a violation of their chartered rights and therefore their actions were against the

constitution of Massachusetts an against the constitution of the United States. The Charles River

proprietors were to be reimbursed for their building the bridge over a total of forty years. after this

forty year period, the bridge was to be property of the commonwealth, and within the period, the

proprietors were to pay two-hundred pounds to Harvard college or University in compensation for the money

lost for the ferry income. (The ferry that passed through the Charles River was to lose money due to the

bridge that the Charles River proprietors had built. But the building of another bridge was to postpone

the proprietors reimbursement, therefore the Charles River proprietors fi!

led a suit. The original bridge insisted that it’s charter contained an implied monopoly and that

creation of a new free bridge destroyed the vested rights it enjoyed in that monopoly. The Charles River

Bridge Company challenged the state decision allowing a second bridge saying that within its character

was the exclusive privilege to carry such traffic. After five days of argument in January 1837, the

court announced its decision in February and the court rejected the Charles River Proprietors argument.

Taney declared that extraordinary privileges, such as exemption form taxation or monopoly from a bridge

site, may not be read into a corporate charter by implication. The state legislature may grant these

privileges if it wishes, but it must do so explicitly. Any other rule, Taney warned, would permit older

and obsolete technologies to impede material progress. Taney declared that the rights not specifically

conferred could not be inferred from the language of a documen!

t. The courts position implicitly endorsed the view of the competitive, not the monopoly model of

economic development. This decision showed the Taney courts keen sensitivity to the impact of

technological change in the law. With Taney’s reasoning, I actually am inclined to agree with the courts

judgment. With the reason that the Charles River Bridge Company was taking money from the Harvard

college ferry, why are they going to resent the Warren Bridge Company for jeopardizing their funds?

Another Taney court case dealing with slavery was Kentucky versus Dennison. In 1859, Willis

Lago, a free black from Ohio, helped a Kentucky slave named Charlotte escape to Ohio. Kentucky indicted

Lago for theft. Governor Berlah Magoffin of Kentucky asked Ohio Governor salmon P. Chase to extradite

Lago. Chase, an anti-slavery advocate, refused to comply, arguing that Lago had not committed a crime

recognized by Ohio Law. Magoffin had waited until Chase left office in 1860 and renewed the requisition

with the new Ohio Governor, William Dennison who also refused to comply. Magoffin when sought a writ of

mandamus to force Dennison to act. Magoffin sued in the United States Supreme Court, under the courts

original jurisdiction for cases between two states. The case presented Chief Justice Roger Taney with a

major dilemma. Taney was profoundly proslavery, deeply antagonistic toward the North, and desirous of

settling all constitutional issues surrounding slavery in favor o!

f the South. But with succession already in progress, Taney was loathe to rule that the Supreme Court of

the Federal Government might have the power to force state governors to act. After chasticizing the Ohio

Governors for not cooperating with the criminal extradition clause of the constitution, Taney ruled that

the court had no power to force a state to comply with its constitutional obligation. In dealing with

slavery,, the Taney court too often claimed that they could do nothing about it. This set out a tone for

their court that stated they didn’t want to be involved with cases dealing with slaves. The abruptness

in their decisions and closed mindedness leads you to think how such a court could have played a role in

our history.

Another historic case in the Taney era was the Ex Parte Merryman, in 1861. With the end of

Jacksons term coming and going, the newly inaugurated president of a divided nation, Abraham Lincoln

anticipated working with a generally cooperative Congress. It was not to be as Chief Justice Roger B.

Taney tried to lead a bloc against Union war objectives. His opinion in Ex Parte Merryman condemned

Lincoln’s “Arbitrary Arrests” of allegedly disloyal civilians as arrogation’s of congresses sole

authority to declare and wage war. Taney denounced the presidents refusal to produce the detainee John

Merryman as a fatal blow too constitutional government. Lincoln believed that the Merryman opinion

violated Taney’s own political question doctrine counseling judicial restraint which suggested that in

civil strife the elective branches bore responsibility for making the basic policy choices. Taney

contradicted his own opinion. He had once suggested that when there was trouble in the !

United States whether civil or world, the judicial branch which included the president of the United

States, should be able to make a decision on what should be allowed or not. President Lincoln’s

suspension of the privilege of the writ of Habeas Corpus in April 1861 presented an issue of government

infringement of civil liberties that could be reasonably be brought before the judiciary.(The writ of

Habeas Corpus is a court order that a prisoner be brought before the court and that the detaining officer

show cause why the prisoner should not be released; designed to prevent illegal arrests and unlawful

imprisonment’s.) The executive branch and congress gave permission for authorities to arrest persons

without warrants, throw them in jail without trials and they were only able to be released when the

danger had passed without benefit of any Supreme Court opinion on the constitutionality of these actions.

Before the government’s policy was put into place, however, Chief justi!

ce Roger Taney attempted to control the actions of the Legislative Branch by invalidating Lincoln’s

suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus Taney questioned the presidents action in Ex Prate Merryman. On

May 25,1861, a sectionist named john Merryman was imprisoned by military order at Fort McHenry,

Baltimore, for his alleged participation in the destruction of railroad bridges. Merryman petitioned

Chief Justice Roger Taney, presiding judge of the circuit court at Baltimore for a writ of habeas corpus.

General George Cadwalader in command of Fort McHenry, refused to obey the writ, however, on the basis

that President Lincoln had suspended Habeas Corpus. Taney cited Cadwalader for contempt of court.

Holding a session at the chambers as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, (rather than presiding over a

session of the circuit court), Taney on the 28th of May, 1861, declared Merryman entitled to his freedom

on the grounds that he was illegally detained. In an unusual move, he!

filed and opinion condemning Merryman’s arrest as an arbitrary and illegal denial of civil liberty.

Taney stated that military detention of civilians like Merryman was unconstitutional because only

congress had authority to suspend the writ of Habeas Corpus. Taney described the president as a mere

administrative officer charged with faithful enforcement of the laws. according to the Chief Justice

this amounted to a constitutional duty not to execute the laws “as they are expanded and adjudged by the

co-ordinate branch of the government, to which that duty is assigned by the constitution.” Taney sent a

copy of his opinion to Lincoln. President Lincoln justified his action in a message to Congress in July

1861. He reasoned further that the framers did not intend that in an emergency no action should be taken

to protect the public safety by suspending Habeas Corpus until Congress should be assembled. More

importantly he ignored Taney’s opinion. Merryman, however, was lat!

er released.

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