Dred Scott and the Lock of 100 Keys

On March 6th, 1857, the US Supreme Court makes a fateful ruling on constitutional law in Dred Scott v. Sanford. It held “(Black Africans imported as slaves) had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, 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.”

Hence, holding that as Mr. Scott was not a citizen, but instead mere property, the court held he had no standing to sue, period. Chief Justice Roger Taney further opined that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the federal territories acquired after the creation of the United States, and declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional.

Scott, an enslaved man of “the negro African race,” his wife, and children were “inherited property” of U.S. Army Surgeon Dr. John Emerson’s widow. When not using them, Emerson would routinely “lease” them out like livestock or machinery and they had been taken by their owners to free states and territories multiple times. In 1846, Scott attempted to purchase his family’s freedom, offering $300, about $8,000 in current value.

The Widow Emerson refused his offer, Scott and his wife separately filed freedom suits to try to gain their liberty, and the cases were later combined by the courts. The 7-2 decision denied them their very humanity and required the second finding of an unconstitutional act of Congress to goon Scott. It is seen by many if not most decent legal scholars as the very worst ruling in all of American jurisprudence.

Speaking to the ruling at an address in Springfield, Illinois, citizen Abraham Lincoln stated in part: “One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him, and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key; the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.”

Such immoral measures in law and governance were part and parcel of a craven course of inhumane conduct of the white man. Events including the Missouri and 1850 Compromises, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, Bleeding Kansas and John Brown’s blaze of fanatical glory caused secession, rebellion, death, destruction, privation, ignorance and an unhealed, open wound to festering through to this very hour.

Three years after voicing his above particular words, Lincoln would be President, the first shots of the Civil War would ring out, and the Republic would begin a painful, lurching journey toward justice, unlikely to ever reach its terminus.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.