The Dred Scott decision (Dred Scott v. Sanford; March 6, 1857) of the United States Supreme Court, set back human and civil rights for African-Americans by nearly a decade (considering the end of the Civil War; 1865 or the new Constitution Amendments; 13, 14, & 15th). One of the primary obstacles to the “set back” was the Chief Justice of the court, Roger B. Taney.
When you think of Roger B. Taney (March 17, 1777 – October 12, 1864) you probably wouldn’t think of Elizabeth Freeman. The movement in America for political, human rights and civil rights didn’t start in Washington, D.C. until the final the Gettysburg Address or even the outcome of the Civil War. The primary issue in the Dred Scott case (Dred Scott v. Sanford) before the United States Supreme Court was not just slavery but the benefit and protection afforded to citizens of America by way of the U.S. Constitution.
Taney was the fifth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. His term at the court began immediately before and during the United States Civil War (March 15, 1836 – October 12, 1864). Roger Taney was a “career government man”. He served as the Treasurer of the United States, as well as the U.S. Attorney General and Secretary of War under President Andrew Jackson. That adds up to 35 years in Washington, D.C., at highest levels of government.
Taney was a strong believer in “state’s rights”, some would say paradoxically, he wanted to keep the Union. As a key player in the Dred Scott Decision, Taney, was also the author of the Supreme Court’s opinion. The Court effectively angered Northerners. Before the Dred Scott case, Southerners were the primary advocates of a military solution to resolve the differences differences in the states.
Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman (c. 1742 – December 28, 1829) was a slave living in Massachusetts. Also known as Bett, she sued for her freedom under the 1780 state constitution. Slavery is contrary to the natural state of humans as per the Massachusetts Constitution. This action was one of the first legal fights for freedom, it began with Elizabeth Freeman. Decades later, Roger Taney, challenged the citizenship of blacks, ushering in a unique argument that drove the county closer to war.
Article 1 if the Massachusetts Constitution reads as follows:
All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness. (malegisture.gov)
Bett, as a result of the ruling of the County Court of Pleas, in the case of Brom and Bett v. Ashley, effectively abolished slavery in the state of Massachusetts. Freeman became the first African-American to be set free under state law. The court even found that Ashley, the defendant, owed damages as compensation for the labor of the plaintiffs (including Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman).
Taney argued that African-Americans, whether free or slave, had not been considered in the community of people covered under the Constitution. Dred Scott, fought for his and his family’s freedom in a system through several cases in lower courts that ultimately led to a decision that invalidated the entire process. The Dred Scott decision was not unanimous, two Justices dissented. Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis was so upset that he resigned form the court.
The Supreme Court in the end, had this terrible decision reversed. Dred Scott died a free man but never enjoyed the comfort of the law. His freedom was made by his release from servitude by a white man. The fight for African-Americans to life and liberty has been indeed a hard fought struggle. From a local government in a small town in Massachusetts to the highest court in the land.
The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution established citizenship rights. The last of the “War Amendments”, the 15th denies the right to vote based on the race of the potential voter. Roger B. Taney only slowed the African-American’s march to equity in the American experiment.