On March 6th, 1857, the Supreme Court of the United States rendered its infamous decision in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case, ruling that Dred Scott, a former slave who had for all intents and purposes become free while living in the state of Illinois, was still a slave under the U.S. Constitution, had no right to petition for his freedom, and that no state had the right to grant him freedom. Furthermore, the Supreme Court ruled that the “Missouri Compromise” was unconstitutional; that black people, regardless of whether they were free or enslaved, could never be United States citizens, and that Congress did not possess the power to prohibit slavery in any federally owned territory. The President of the United States at the time, the South, and the Democratic party were jubilant.
Like the infamous Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, Dred v. Sandford was a 7-2 decision, wherein the court declared that a particular class of people (in Roe, unborn human beings, and in Dred, black human beings) were without constitutional rights and were to be treated as the property of those who did possess such rights. In Dred, the property rights of the slave owner, trader, and man-stealer were enshrined as “constitutional,” while in Roe, the “property rights” of the mother were similarly enshrined by way of the newly invented constitutional protection of the “right to privacy.”
As the Dred Scott decision gave legal expression to the dehumanizing racism of the day, declaring that Negroes had “for more that a century been regarded as beings of an inferior order… so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” the Roe v. Wade decision gave legal expression to the ageist and dehumanizing sentiments of our own time arguing that pre-born human beings living inside of their mothers’ wombs had no constitutional right to life because they failed to meet our culture’s criteria of “personhood.” 1
However, whereas the Supreme Court ruling in Roe outright perverted the Constitution and denied the right to life granted in the 5th and 14th amendments to create a co-called “right to abortion,” the court’s ruling in Dred was actually quite consistent with the Constitution as it had been originally ratified. Though the court’s ruling went much further than the founders had originally intended in prohibiting the right of states to grant freedom to former slaves in its blatantly racial justification for oppressing black people in particular, the Constitution had treated slaves as property and not as possessors of equal rights.
As Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney wrote in the majority decision in Dred, the “right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution,” and the Constitution “makes no distinction between that description of property [slaves] and other property owned by a citizen.” Taney argued that blacks were not and never had been citizens of the U.S. in either 1776 or 1789, and therefore could not be citizens in 1857.
“They [negroes] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either 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 might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit” Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856) 2
This is why William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the nineteenth century Liberator argued that the Constitution was “a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell,” because it was the “the source and parent of all the other atrocities” regarding the unfair treatment of people of color in the country.
While various abolitionists disagreed about the Constitution as it was originally written, with some arguing that it was never meant to protect slavery indefinitely as an institution, abolitionists nonetheless immediately and uniformly excoriated the Dred Scott ruling as a “monstrous decision” which they had a duty before God to disobey.
Posing the question “Shall this decision be submitted to?” in the March 27th issue of The Liberator, abolitionists responded, “It need not be.”
This bold sentiment of ignoring and defying the Supreme Court ruling in Dred was not unique to the pages of The Liberator but representative of the larger abolitionist response of the time. As the editors of the Watchman and the Reflector, a Northern Baptist periodical wrote, “If the Constitution is a charter to protect slavery, everywhere, then it is a sin against God and man to swear allegiance to it.”
Abolitionists thus interpreted the ruling in Dred as simply more evidence displaying the nation’s rebellion against God and further proof that the need of the hour was not political compromise but righteous resistance, nullification, and outright defiance of the federal beast.
Abolitionists did not talk of plans to appoint anti-slavery justices to the bench who might get the opportunity to overturn Dred in the future. On the contrary, they openly derided the Supreme Court’s ruling as wicked, instructed their hearers to ignore it, and even encouraged radical defiance to its lawless decrees. In fact, abolitionists criticized fainthearted anti-slavery northerners who appeared ready to submit to the racist and tyrannical rule of the Supreme Court rather than defy it.
“Every man,” abolitionists in the Watchman and Reflector continued, “will be forced to choose between disunion, and the guilt of an accomplice in the crime of slavery.” The question abolitionists put to the people then is essentially the same question abolitionists are asking today: not “how do we change the ruling of the Supreme Court and overturn Scott v Sandford?”, but “how do we best defy the court and bring the country back to God?” Indeed, abolitionists like Frederick Douglass saw in the Dred Scott ruling an opportunity to excite a more determined opposition.
When asked how he was affected by the decision, Douglass opined, “my hopes were never brighter than now. I have no fear that the National Conscience will be put to sleep by such an open, glaring, and scandalous tissue of lies as that decision is, and has been, over and over, shown to be. The Supreme Court of the United States is not the only power in this world. It is very great, but the Supreme Court of the Almighty is greater. Judge Taney can do many things, but he cannot perform impossibilities. He cannot bale out the ocean, annihilate the firm old earth, or pluck the silvery star of liberty from our Northern sky. He may decide, and decide again; but he cannot reverse the decision of the Most High. He cannot change the essential nature of things — making evil good, and good evil. Happily for the whole human family, their rights have been defined, declared, and decided in a court higher than the Supreme Court.”
Speaking on behalf of the Abolitionist movement, Douglass continued, “In one point of view, we, the abolitionists and colored people, should meet this decision, unlooked for and monstrous as it appears, in a cheerful spirit. This very attempt to blot out forever the hopes of an enslaved people may be one necessary link in the chain of events preparatory to the downfall and complete overthrow of the whole slave system. The whole history of the anti-slavery movement is studded with proof that all measures devised and executed with a view to ally and diminish the anti-slavery agitation, have only served to increase, intensify, and embolden that agitation.”
Abolitionists therefore continued to openly practice outright disobedience to the courts as they continued working the underground railroad to rescue slaves from southern bondage, and only increased their calls for national repentance, warnings of divine judgment, and appeals for the total and immediate abolition of human slavery.
- Of course, nobody really argued that “Negroes” were not human or that “Fetuses” were not human. In both Dred and Roe, rights had to be connected to cultural considerations and historical status rather than what the Declaration of Independence or Holy Scripture had cited as their foundation; namely “being created by God” and “made in His Image.”
- This is similar to the arguments presented by Justice Henry Blackmun in the majority decision in Roe, where the human fetus is not considered a person with rights because “no case could be cited that holds that a fetus is a person within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment,” and nowhere had the Constitution previously and explicitly defined human beings living in the womb to be “persons.” (Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 p. 157 (1973))