March 6, 2013
On Mar. 6, 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Dred Scott v. Sanford that because Dred Scott was black, he was not a citizen of the United States and had no right to sue in federal court, and that the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which guaranteed some U.S. Territories would be free, was unconstitutional because the 5th Amendment protected slaveholders.
It was arguably the worst ruling by our nation’s highest court.
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s majority opinion was the definition of strict constructionism, which the 1905 edition of the New International Encyclopedia defined as “those who, for various reasons, have maintained that the Federal Constitution should be construed strictly in accordance with its letter.” (The term did not come into use until after the Civil War.)
Taney, who was from Maryland, was the fifth Chief Justice of the court and the first Roman Catholic. He was nominated by Andrew Jackson, whom he served as Attorney General (1831-33) and Secretary of the Treasury (1833-34), and served as Chief Justice for 28 years. As Kent Newmyer wrote in his 2006 analysis of Taney: “Roger Taney suited the complex and contradictory middle period of American history as well as any man could. He was a southerner who loved his country, a champion of states' rights who was dedicated to the Union, a slaveholder who manumitted his slaves, and an aristocrat with a democratic political philosophy.”
Taney, who was born on Mar. 17, 1777, was the second son of a plantation family in Calvert County, Maryland, who read for the law since he could not inherit the family tobacco farm. In 1806, he married Francis Scott Key’s sister, Anne, and was part of a group of reform-minded citizens in Maryland. He joined an anti-kidnapping society to protect free blacks and argued cases for free blacks and slaves, including defending in the Maryland Supreme Court, unsuccessfully, a free black man accused of raping a white woman. In 1818, he freed seven of his slaves, and within seven years, freed all but two, who he thought could not provide for themselves on their own.
In a speech to a jury in 1819, Taney said: “[Slavery] is a blot on our national character, and every real lover of freedom, confidently hopes that it will be effectually, though it must be gradually, wiped away; and earnestly looks for the means, by which this necessary object may best be attained.”
Yet Taney’s Dred Scott ruling denied citizenship to both slaves and free blacks, because the framers of the Constitution had viewed blacks “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.”
Taney, through some apparently convoluted logic, thought the ruling would settle the bitter slave controversy. It eventually did, but not in the manner Taney intended.
The 14th Amendment fixed the citizenship aspect of the decision.