On this day in 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 had 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.
Though Scott, an enslaved man of “the negro African race,” had been taken by his owners to free states and territories; the 7-2 decision denied him his very humanity. It was only the second finding of an unconstitutional act of Congress and is seen by many 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.”
Three years after voicing these 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.