I have always been amazed at how uninterested Americans–particularly the ones who worship symbols like the flag, the national anthem, etc.–are in learning, and learning from, our shared history as a country.
This observation is not, by the one, a partisan one, despite my comment about American symbols; the vast majority of Americans, no matter how they fall politically, have little to no interest in our history…and thus, we are doomed to repeat it, over and over again.
Friday, as is my wont, I chose to take comfort in rereading some history; in particular, the Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court decision.
Everyone knows the name, and everyone knows what the ruling was. Historians and jurists both agree it was without question the worst Supreme Court ruling in our history, and it certainly deserves every degree of vilification it has received since it entered our collective history, if not more.
Essentially, the case was about this: Dred Scott was a slave whose owners had taken him into free states, and therefore, by living in a free state, was entitled to his freedom. The case, from beginning to end, went on for nearly twenty years. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger B, Taney, threw the case out based on these legal considerations:
- Negroes could not be United States citizens, therefore they could not sue in federal courts;
- the laws of Illinois could not affect him in Missouri, where he now lived;
- his residence in Minnesota Territory north of the Missouri Compromise line could not confer freedom because the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.
The Missouri Compromise was legislation reached in attempt to settle the slavery question; Missouri was allowed into the Union as a slave state, but a line was drawn across the continent below Missouri. Anything new state or territory above the line was free; anything below slavery was legal. This ruling essentially said that slavery followed the flag, and any anti-slavery laws in states in the north did not apply to slaves brought into those states or territories.
Taney’s ruling in the first part was actually even worse than quoted above (from Robert Leckie’s The Wars of America, a really good summary of each war the United States has participated in, through Vietnam); his actual ruling said “Negroes and descendants of slaves.” There were more free people of color living in the United States than most people commonly suppose; in New Orleans, they were an entire class of society, with rules and etiquette and customs (an excellent mystery series is Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series, set in New Orleans in the 1830’s; Benjamin is a free man of color and went to medical school in Paris, but as a black man he cannot practice in the United States. Anne Rice also wrote a terrific novel about the free people of color, The Feast of All Saints). This ruling invalidated their citizenship–it might have been second-class, but it was still citizenship nonetheless. The newly elected president, James Buchanan, connived with Taney to come up with the ruling, and put pressure on other justices to agree to the ruling, thinking it would end the slavery question once and for all.
Needless to say, it did not settle the slavery question. Instead, it inflamed passions on both sides, with the almost inevitable election of Abraham Lincoln, secession, and civil war.
Taney remained chief justice until he died in 1864, and is known to history as one of our worst Supreme Court justices. The Dred Scott decision lives on in infamy, even if most people don’t really know what the case was about, what it’s background was, and what happened because of it. During the Civil War, both Lincoln and Congress not only ignored Taney but the rest of the Supreme Court as well. Lifetime appointments, you see, and pro-slavery justices appointed to appease the slave-owning southern states–they could not trust the court to be impartial–which they showed they were definitely not in the Dred Scott case–and it took decades for the court to regain its luster and credibility.
Which, of course, they proceeded to destroy again in the 1890’s with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which essentially legalized segregation. It wasn’t until Brown v. Topeka Board of Education that the arc of American justice began to bend away from racism, bigotry, and legalized discrimination.
I also had a brief moment of hilarity yesterday when I imagined what social media might have looked like (had it existed) in the 1850’s, with the abolitionists and the proslavery people fighting about the legality of owning people.
Someone had posted, about a year ago, somewhere about something about how we all need to pull together as Americans!!! The country has never been this divided!!!
The excess of unnecessary punctuation should give you an idea of where the poster fell on the political spectrum.
That was, however, one of the few times I broke my rule of “do not engage on social media” and replied, The hundreds of thousands killed in the Civil War would beg to differ with that statement.
There has always been a divide in this country; rural v. urban, rich v. poor, conservative v. progressive. Our country has never quite lived up to the lofty ideals it was founded upon; slavery was written into the Constitution, the Supreme Court ruled it legal and then later legalized segregation. Religious, gender, racial and sexuality-based bigotry continue to this day.
That divide will always be there, and sometimes it’s more rancorous than others. We are living in a particularly rancorous time; but if you look back through American history, as I tend to do, you will see that rancor and hatred between opposing opinions has always existed.
Everyone knows that George Washington, for example, had wooden teeth. But in the eighteenth century dentistry was not what it is today and dental hygiene and health was almost primitive. It was very rare for anyone past the age of forty in that time to actually keep their teeth. They all wore false teeth. Washington’s just fit him poorly, and newspapers that resisted his presidency mocked him for his bad dentures. So, George Washington’s teeth have entered American lore and everyone knows that about the first president.
As a nation, we really need to know and understand our history better.