One mean spirited decision intended to end the effort to end slavery led to one million dead and the end of slavery anyway.
I spent some time this weekend at a political event comparing prosecutors and other legal eagles, who were all hoping to get the job of Attorney General. They were Candidates General, I guess. Trump was mentioned, and somewhere along the line, Dred Scott was mentioned as well. I turned to a highly placed official sort of dude and said, “Did you know that Dred Scott lived in Minnesota?” He did not know that. So I asked a couple of other people if they knew, and they did not. Finally I found the smartest person in the room and she didn’t know either.
Gee, I thought, if you want to be the Attorney General of Minnesota and you are going to invoke the name of Dred Scott, you really ought to know that he lived just a few short miles away from where you are standing there invoking!
So I wrote this:
In 1857, US Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that a person who is black and of African ancestry can never be thought of as an American citizen, and therefore, has no standing to bring a law suit in federal court. In the same decision, Taney determined that a previous act of Congress that prohibited slavery in most of the territory north of a certain latitude, in land that was in the United States but not in a given state, was unconstitutional. In so doing he decided and determined that the US Congress could not prohibit slavery.
This decision was made in response to a suit filed by a slave named Dred Scott, who lived for a while, during a very important part of his life, just south of the Twin Cities.
Mr. Scott had been born a slave in Missouri, but later lived in various non-slave territories, as one of his owners was in the military and moved around a lot. During that time, he met and married Harriet Robinson, who was also a slave. Mr. Scott was owned by a military doctor stationed at Fort Snelling, which had been built on Lakota-Dakota land known as B’Dote (or Bdote) near what is now Bloomington Minnesota, home of the Mall of America. Ms. Robinson’s owner was Lawrence Taliaferro, who was the fort’s Indian Agent. Since Taliaferro was a Justice of the Peace, it was he who both gave his slave the permission to marry her fiance, and it was he who performed the ceremony.
At the time, Fort Snelling was in “Wisconsin Territory,” which is why, I suspect, Minnesotans by and large don’t know that Dred Scott lived here. Wisconsin Territory included parts of North and South Dakota, all of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and possibly tiny bits of adjoining lands. But if you come across a reference to Dred Scott in a history book, the word “Wisconsin” is right there, and Minnesotans think of the Green Bay Packers and move on.
Previous legal decisions, and a certain amount of common logic sprinkled with a sense of humanity, had already determined that a slave who then lived as a free person for a while got to be a free person for the rest of their lives. Since slavery was not legal in what was to eventually become Minnesota, and other territories in which Scott lived, he had a pretty solid legal case to make that he should be freed even after his owner moved him back into a slave state at a later time.
In order for Justice Taney to determine that Scott’s case was invalid, he had to create law that made the federal abolition of slavery in all non-state territories impossible, and to make all blacks non-citizens. Taney’s ruling was only the second time the Supreme Court had found an act of Congress unconstitutional, and of all the SCOTUS decisions ever made, this one had by far the greatest and most negative ultimate consequence.
Mr. Scott’s history is more complicated. There were changes in who owned him. He had tried to buy his freedom. He and his wife had children, including children born in non-slave territory. Abolitionists got involved. The Dred Scott vs. Sandford supreme court case, and all the legal events that preceded it, were major news at the time. The final result of Taney’s decision sealed the fate of the United States, set back civil rights by a century and a half, and contributed materially to the violent deaths of about a million people.
Fast forward to 1879.
From the time of the birth of the nation, but with greater intensity starting around 1830, and getting more and more intense in subsequent decades, the United States continuously wrestled with the issue of slavery. Abraham Lincoln had always thought slavery was bad, but he was enamored with the US Constitution and could see no easy direct way to make slavery illegal country-wide. He felt it would eventually die out as a practice, through a combination of legal and social changes.
But reducing or eliminating slavery had become an order of magnitude more difficult than it ever had to be because of Taney’s Supreme Court ruling. When Abraham Lincoln was elected to be president of the United States, slave owners felt that their ownership of other humans, and their right to spread that practice to the other sates simply by moving to them (with their property, their slaves) was threatened. This threat was sufficient that they assembled armies, caused their states to separate from the Union, and attacked the US Federal government with military force. The ensuing Civil War is the reason most of the previously mentioned million people died, but many others, blacks, have been killed before, during, and after the war by white supremacists. (This includes Union soldiers who were black, who were routinely killed on the spot when taken prisoner by Southern soldiers.)
After the war, there was a rapid and remarkable shift in society and politics in the south. Federal authority made it possible and relatively safe for southern Blacks to run for office and to vote in elections. Suddenly there were black faces in state legislatures and the US Congress.
But at the same time organizations like the Klu Klux Klan formed, and these organizations and their supporters infiltrated local and state governments. In some cases, they set up separate governments. On election day, in some jurisdictions, there were two voting boxes, and you could pick which one to cast your ballot in. The white supremacists had their vote, everyone else had a different vote, and when the results were different, the federal government would enforce the correct vote. At times, these disputes turned into small shooting wars, and were sometimes accompanied by random slaughter of blacks living in local communities.
Eventually the new fight over the old south fully evolved at the federal level and things got really strange.
In 1876, the United States had its most contentious election for president ever. Samuel Tilden, a Democrat (and thus of the party of the South) from New York (and thus maybe not so much from the party of the south) won 50.9% of the vote to Rutherford B. Hayes’ 47.9%. Hayes is credited with having had 185 electoral votes to Tilden’s 184.
Initially, however, the count was Tilden with 184 electoral votes, Hayes with 165, and 20 from that special category of votes that involved the multiple voting boxes and other shenanigans. The states with the bad votes were Florida (of course), Louisiana, and South Carolina (and there was a small problem in Oregon as well).
Eventually, a deal was struck. This deal was almost certainly illegal and extra constitutional, but even if that wasn’t the case, the deal was bad. But it is hard to say because the process and even details of the decisions made in the deal were kept secret and to this day we are not entirely sure what happened.
Rutherford Hayes, the Republican, was awarded all the messy votes, and became president. But, in return for keeping the Presidency out of the hands of the Party of Slavery, the federal authorities that were in the South keeping the white supremacists at bay, were withdrawn.
This is the beginning of the Jim Crow era, the era of terror and and harassment, hate and murder, bestowed by southern whites on southern blacks.
OK, fast forward to 1879 but for real this time, now that you have the context.
Slavery, a fight against slavery, Roger Taney personally ensures the continuation of slavery for a few, as well as the many, and produces the most bone-headed court decision ever, which is on the top list of three or four reasons that definitely led to the Civil War, followed by a lot of white supremacist whinging about, followed by the Jim Crow era.
And that is when art and antiquities collector William Walters (of the Walters Museum), who had hid out in Europe during the Civil War and seems to have been involved in about zero political activities as far as I can tell, paid for the erection of a monument to Roger Taney in Baltimore.
Now, fast forward a bit farther to March 6th, 2017. That is when this happened:
This is Charles Taney III, a great great grand whatever of Roger Taney, hugging Jynne Jackson, a great great grand whatever of Dred Scott, in front of the Taney statue. This photograph was taken at a ceremony in which Taney publicly apologized to Jackson.
Lynne M. Jackson winced outside the Maryland State House on Monday as she listened to Charlie Taney repeat some of the words his great-great-grand-uncle wrote in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision 160 years ago.
Black people cannot be U.S. citizens and have no rights except the ones that white people give them. Whites are superior to blacks. Slavery is legal.
“You can’t hide from the words that [Roger Brooke] Taney wrote,” Charlie Taney said, standing a few feet from a statue of his ancestor, who lived in Maryland and was chief justice of the nation’s highest court from 1836 until his death in 1864.
“You can’t run, you can’t hide, you can’t look away. You have to face them.”
Then Charlie Taney turned to Jackson, the great-great granddaughter of Scott, an enslaved man who sued for his freedom. He apologized — on behalf of his family, to the Scott family and to all African Americans, for the “terrible injustice of the Dred Scott decision.”
And just a few short months later. during the early morning hours of August 18th, as a result of civil unrest stemming from pro-Nazi and pro-white supremacist remarks made by President Donald Trump, that Taney statue was removed:
Many of the Southern statues related to the Civil War, or, I suppose,pro-slavery supreme court decisions, were installed at about the same time as the Taney sculpture. The motivation behind the Taney statue, and possibly, who was really behind it, are an enigma, but in many cases, statues or monuments were erected by local governments under pressure (from within or elsewhere) by organizations like the KKK or other post war white supremacist groups and individuals. These statues were put up after the election of 1876 and the start of the Jim Crow era and their erection was very much part of that social movement.
A second wave of statue building and memorializing of things Southern happened during the 20th century Civil Rights Era. At this time, many schools were named after southern notables.
So at the start of Jim Crow, blacks living in southern cities were served up a reminder of their place in southern society. During the Civil Rights Era, black students were served up a reminder of their place in southern society, during the period of forced integration of schools.
No wonder so many northerners require southerns to prove that they are not a) assholes or b) stupid before giving them a break. Considering that our least racists and overall best presidents have come from the South, and Donald Trump comes from Queens, New York, northerners should give southerners more of a break. But we can do that while at the same time noting that there are a lot of people in this country that don’t deserve anyone’s respect because of their hateful views.
Meanwhile, in Bloomington, MN, you can find a memorial to Dred Scott, as well as a Dred Scott miniature golf course, a playground, and a car repair place.
I’d tell you what the plaques in Bloomington say, but I can’t find the text. I will visit the park soon and report back, it is not too far from me.
Meanwhile, if you live in or near the Twin Cities, get over to Fort Snelling and visit the place where Harriet and Dred lived. There is some interpretive history there, and the rest of the historic site is pretty interesting too.
The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics
Dred Scott’s Revenge: A Legal History of Race and Freedom in America
Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford Series in History & Culture)
Dred and Harriet Scott: A Family’s Struggle for Freedom
I, Dred Scott: A Fictional Slave Narrative Based on the Life and Legal Precedent of Dred Scott