Historical Context: Dred Scott and the states rights argument.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted regularly, and this is a situation that I’m planning on changing. Along these line I’m wanting to expand and change the subjects I write about. I’m intended this to be the first in a series of posts in which I discuss a very narrow facet of history and it’s relevance to modern political and ethical issues. The purpose of this is to give people a better understanding of how various elements of history effect our modern life, and how argue about political issues in a more informed and nuanced way.

With all the recent kerfuffle over the rebel flag being taken down in South Carolina and the subsequent conversations about the issue it was inevitable that a lot of people came out of the woodwork to defend flying the rebel flag. These arguments take a number of forms, but the most common one is to attempt to reimage the southern state’s reasons for succession as having nothing to do with slavery, and thus nothing to do with institutionalized racism.

The most popular, though by no means the only, alternative reason for the civil war that is offered is states rights. The argument being that the southerners were staunch defended of limited federal government as envisioned by Jefferson and other strict constructionists and northerners like Lincoln were interested in expanding the powers of the federal government and forcing southern states to make changes they didn’t want to make.

There are a lot of problems with this argument, but the goal of this series is brevity I’m going to focus on one specific problem with this argument, the Dred Scott case. For those that are unfamiliar with this case I’ll give a brief summary. Dred Scott was a slave who had spend some time living in a free territory, Wisconsin, and a free state Illinois. He had been working to obtain freedom for himself and his wife starting the early 1840’s. This eventually lead to the Supreme court picking up the case in 1856. They ruled 7-2 against Scott in March of 1957 based on the reasoning that blacks were not American citizens, even if they had been granted citizenship in the state they resided in, and therefore did not have standing to sue in a federal court. They also ruled that the Missouri compromise was unconstitutional, relevant because Scott had been living in a territory.

Now it’s important to note that 5 of the 7 justices who ruled against Scott were from the south, and the decision was generally lauded in the south.

Jefferson Davis, who would eventually become president of the confederacy, had this to say about the decision.

Instead of accepting the decision of this then august tribunal—the ultimate authority in the interpretation of constitutional questions—as conclusive of a controversy that had so long disturbed the peace and was threatening the perpetuity of the Union, it was flouted, denounced, and utterly disregarded by the Northern agitators, and served only to stimulate the intensity of their sectional hostility. (full quote here)

Now what’s interesting about all this is that the Dred Scott decision was anti-state rights, probably the most anti-state rights ruling that had been made at that time.  Basically, the northern states were worried that the decision could essentially invalidate their laws against slavery since based on Dred Scott anyone could have bought a slave in a slave state and them moved to a “free state” in which that slave would continue to be a slave. If the major concern of the southern states was states rights, they would have attacked the decision, yet it was the north who opposed Dred Scott and the south who supported it. The fact that the south was supportive of a decision that protected slavery at the expense of state rights is a pretty strong piece of evidence against the states rights argument.

This entry was posted in History, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.