Legal scholars and historians have called it the worst Supreme Court decision ever, and a former chief justice characterized it as the court’s “greatest self-inflicted wound.”
But these references were not about the recent ruling that struck down Roe v. Wade.
This year marks the 165th since the court, in a blatantly racist decision, ruled that anyone of African descent could not be an American citizen “and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges” that go with citizenship.
In the 7-2 majority opinion, Chief Justice Roger Taney asserted that Black people were, in the eyes of the nation’s founders, “considered as a subordinate and inferior class of being.”
According to Taney, keeping the Black population enslaved was permissible because “a perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery.”
His court ruled that Dred Scott, a slave seeking freedom, had no legal standing because slaves were chattel, and to free them would deprive their owners of a constitutional right to property.
Today, we’re aware that some of the most prominent Founding Fathers held slaves, as did many landed gentry in Rhode Island.
But when the court dismissed Scott’s appeal in 1857, abolitionist Frederick Douglass heaped disdain on any notion that past enslavement was legitimate legal precedent. He termed the court’s detestable view “an open, glaring, and scandalous tissue of lies.”
Others who were anti-slavery called the decision a moral abomination, and the national passion it enflamed erupted a few years later into the Civil War.
This is why most of us, early in our civics classes, are introduced to Scott, whose failed trek toward freedom spanned a torturous ten years.
His owners had taken him from Missouri, a slave state, to Illinois, where slavery was illegal, and later back to Missouri. He insisted that since he had lived in a free state he was automatically free, and that enslavement could not be re-imposed.
When his legal efforts toward freedom failed in Missouri, the case went to a U.S. Supreme Court on which seven of the nine justices had been appointed by pro-slavery presidents. Five of the seven were from slave-holding families.
In dismissing the appeal, the court left Scott with a dispiriting result – he could expect no liberty from the government of the United States.
Dred Scott finally did gain emancipation, but not from the government. Soon after the court’s decision, he and his wife, Harriet, were bought by new owners and set free. But he enjoyed freedom only briefly; he died of tuberculosis the following year, at age 59. Seven years later, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery.
The turnaround snuffed out Justice Taney’s declaration that “A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a ‘citizen’ within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.”
Terrifying as that sounds today, it was written, historically speaking, just the blink of an eye ago and was the law of our land.
Most of us have regarded the decision as a history lesson, a despicable and discriminatory ruling beyond anything a contemporary Supreme Court would abide.
But now we have the strikedown of Roe v. Wade and we worry about what might follow. Suddenly, judicial contempt for civil liberties is no longer beyond imagination.
Gerry Goldstein (firstname.lastname@example.org), a frequent contributor, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.