On March 6, 1857, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court came to a decision concerning African Americans in the law and the nation. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared,

“In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendents, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as part of the people….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.”

The court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, arguably the most egregious decision in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, demonstrated the exclusion of free and enslaved African Americans in antebellum legal and judicial systems. Especially at state and national levels, slaves had little voice and no political or legal recourse. Yet, at the local level, as courts dealt with minor complaints and family issues, slaves were able to mobilize some action on their own behalf, operating within a system that depended on the local and personal involvement of the community. In this arena, slaves’ position before the court was less rigid and their voices louder. Before the Civil War slaves fought their enslavement and invisibility before the law, with occasional successes in local arenas, but ultimately were unable to change their status as property in the nation’s legal code under the war.

Primary sources from the Dred Scott case: 

Local Courts

Slaves’ presence in local courts contradicted Chief Justice Taney’s statement that slaves had never been “acknowledged as part of the people.” Indeed, at the local level, slaves were an intricate part of their communities and recognized as part of the “public body.” Cases of violence against slaves were common in Southern courtrooms, and not always decided in favor of white male patriarchs. Even when the courts did enforce the supremacy of the head of household, the fact that they continually had to to do so reveals the limits of patriarchal authority. Slaves were not merely property of whites, but also humans and community members with relationships and reputations. Local courts recognized this when they ruled that white masters overstepped their boundaries in disciplining their slaves.

Local courts were, in effect, extensions of the community, and so emotions, prejudices, and innuendo could be utilized on behalf of dependents against masters. As historian Laura Edwards describes, in much of the South local courts had considerable authority in defining the law’s meaning for individuals.  Although criminal procedures were meant to protect the “public,” the “public” generally considered to be white males, these men occasionally found themselves on the other end of the law when their actions amounted to a disturbance of the public peace. The legal imperative to maintain public peace gave communities leverage to discipline abusive husbands and masters.

The local legal system was (and still remains) highly personal and subjective, allowing space for those officially “invisible” in law to have influence. Magistrate’s hearings, the first institutional level of the judicial system, were highly personal, conducted in houses and yards, with heavy community involvement. Magistrates’ decisions often revolved around the “character” of those involved and those presenting testimony. “Character” reflected status, gender, race, property ownership, as well as reputation in the community, so personal knowledge of people was crucial.

This highly personal character of local southern courts was demonstrated in the case of a slave named Sylva, who managed to condemn her overseer for her death in 1822. Sylva had intervened to protect her son from the overseer’s whip, and the overseer had then brutally lashed Sylva. Suspicions surrounding the overseer mounted, as Sylva’s health declined, and she vocalized her anger to the community. Gossip spread even faster because three white men had been present to see the overseer’s whipping. Her complaints were loud enough to become community knowledge by the time of her death. When the overseer was charged, he confessed immediately, and the jurors accepted his responsibility for Sylva’s death without question. Although the overseer was not given a legal penalty, he was nonetheless open to public scrutiny, condemnation, and stigmatization.

Historian Steven Hahn also discusses the role of “the grapevine,” the informal connections of gossip and information in a community, in giving slaves a voice.  Slaves’ words were given power as they moved through the gossip channels, and were spoken by people with greater access to the formal legal system, like white men. These cases reveal that slaves were neither silent nor completely invisible in court.

Despite slaves’ actions in local courts, they were nevertheless operating in a highly oppressive and discriminatory system that vastly limited their legal recourse. In the eyes of the law slaves were property, and while masters could be charged for killing their slaves, charges were usually dropped because the law defined “legitimate discipline” so broadly. For example, one brutal slavemaster who killed his slaves was acquitted—twice.  At the same time, when slaves committed violence against their masters, it was a criminal offense. “Violence” by dependents could include speech and gestures. The system of white male power was not absolute, yet as cases moved further from the local level, slaves had less opportunity to make an impact.

Read Chief Justice Taney’s letter to Caleb Cushing on November 9, 1857, thanking himfor his support of Taney’s decision in the Dred Scott case.

State and Federal Appellate Courts

At the state and federal appellate court level, abstract concepts of the power of white men and slaves became far more important than community dynamics in determining outcomes. One example of the theoretical legal distance between local and state courts is reflected in the dispute in 1829 between Lydia, a slave, and John Mann, her master. The dispute arose when Mann shot Lydia as she was running away. At the local level, Lydia and John Mann were tried as specific individuals, and the jurors ruled in favor of Lydia, convicting Mann. When the case was appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, however, the judges recognized Mann’s power as master to shoot his slave.  At the state level, the abstract rights of white men over all dependents gave Mann freedom based on his abstract identity rather than his personal reputation within the community.

U.S. Supreme Court

At the national level, court decisions reflected abstract legal categories rather than specific individuals to an even greater degree. The U.S. Supreme Court, loathe to deal with the slavery issue or African Americans at all, nonetheless made decisions that impacted slaves, culminating in the infamous Dred Scott case in 1857. The Marshall Court, from 1801-1835, focused on the relationship between federal power and state power. Chief Justice John Marshall, a federalist who supported a strong federal government, was often at odds with President Jefferson and the Jeffersonian Republicans, who were suspicious of national power and believed in states’ rights. Through the Supreme Court decisions of the early antebellum era, Marshall succeeded in creating a strong and powerful Supreme Court, forcing states to obey federal laws, and establishing the powers of Congress over the states. The court’s decisions in Marbury V. Madison (1803), McCulloch V. Maryland (1819), and Gibbons V. Ogden (1824) all strengthened the power of the national government over the states.

 Click here for more on Supreme Court Cases in 1800’s America

These decisions moved the legal process closer to one that valued abstract legal definitions and a uniform legal code for all the states. In doing so, the court made it imperative for the nation to establish a legal position on slavery rather than leaving it up to the states. While universal law might, ensure more liberal and equal treatment of individuals than local law, this wasn’t the case for slaves in antebellum America.

Dred Scott

In the decades before Dred Scott, Southern courts often ruled in favor of the slaves who brought forth freedom suits. During this early period, judges of many southern slave states were also willing to respect the laws of free states.  In 1842, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in favor of the slave Winny in its first freedom suit, Winny v. Whitesides. The court decided Winny’s master had broken the law by introducing slavery into a region that had prohibited it, that she had freed her slave by bringing her to a free state, and moreover that Winny did not return to being a slave once freed, simply by moving back to a slave state. This decision was the precedent for all later freedom suits. In 1834, in Rachael v. Walker, (a dispute nearly identical to the later conflict in Dred Scott) one of the judges, Justice Mathias McGirk, expressed annoyance at the persistence of slaveholders in refusing to obey the prohibition of slavery in other states. He said, “It seems that the ingenuity of counsel and the interest of those disposed to deal with slave property, will never admit any thing to be settled in regard to this question.”  After this decision, however, the Missouri court sided more and more with slave masters, as southern states began to fear that their “peculiar institution” was coming under attack. 

The Dred Scott case was first brought to court in Missouri in 1846. Scott was a slave born in Virginia, and was taken by his owner to Missouri, where U.S. Army Surgeon Dr. John Emerson purchased him. Emerson took Scott to Illinois, a free state under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and then to Wisconsin territory, another free territory. Emerson leased out Scott in Wisconsin territory, effectively bringing the institution of slavery to a free state. After Emerson’s death, his widow continued to lease out Scott, and when he attempted to purchase his and his family’s freedom, Emerson refused, leading Scott to sue his master. The Missouri court overturned 28 years of precedent, ruling that the Scotts were legally still slaves, and that the right of slavemasters to their property could not be abridged by the laws of other states. Judge Scott’s majority opinion in the case was both a legal and moral argument: legally that all states had the right to determine how far they would comply with other states’ laws, and that morally the institution of slavery was beneficial and should be protected. 

Chief Justice Taney read the majority opinion of the Court, stating that black people were not citizens of the U.S. and thus could not expect protection from the federal government or the courts; the opinion also stated that Congress had no authority to ban slavery from a federal territory. The decision was overturned by the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution, which abolished slavery and declared all persons born in the United States to be citizens.
Chief Justice Taney’s majority opinion stated that black people were not citizens of the U.S. and thus could not expect protection from the federal government or the courts and that Congress had no authority to ban slavery from a federal territory.

In 1857, Scott again sued for his freedom, this time from his current owner, John Sanford, and the argument made its way to the United States Supreme Court. Under Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the court ruled that black Americans, whether free or enslaved, were not American citizens, and could not sue in federal court. It ruled that Congress lacked the power to ban slavery in any of the U.S. territories and that the right of slaveowners to their slaves was constitutionally protected by the Fifth Amendment and could not be abridged. With this decision, the court made a statement not about the individuals Dred Scott and Dr. John Emerson, but about the abstract legal treatment of white men and slaves, and the relationship of these groups to the United States legal system.

Dred Scott is widely accepted as the worst decision in the Supreme Court’s history. It would take a bloody civil war and the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to overturn Dred Scott. The laws and court decisions of antebellum America legalized and enforced slavery in the Southern states, and tacitly accepted it in the northern states. Yet, slaves were not voiceless or invisible, and at the local level were able to push back. Clearly, slaves were oppressed by a system that stripped them of their liberty and rights before the law. But important areas of contestation were ongoing in antebellum America over slaves and their bodies. Justice Gamble, who dissented from the Missouri Court’s decision, and many like him, saw slaves as property but also as humans who were still entitled to some handful of rights, including the right to earn their freedom, to be part of a community, and to live free lives in states that prohibited slavery. Slaves took advantage of this, bringing masters to court for murder, and for illegal enslavement. And they sometimes won. The two legal systems, one in which law was abstract and the other in which it was highly personal, coexisted in the antebellum South. As the nation drew closer to war, proslavery attitudes hardened as southerners feared their way of life was under threat, resulting in a decision that attempted to strip African Americans of their agency and their humanity.

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