Our Failure, Our Duty, in Scott v. Sanford Erin McKeen
The Scott Case
As described by David McCullough, Our Failure and Our Duty in History, is to see history not as lesser than the present, and to go beyond the portrayal of simple facts. One instance of failure in this regard is seen in the case Scott v. Sandford
Dred Scott was a slave belonging to John Emerson in Missouri, who upon his master's death in 1847, filed a lawsuit for his freedom against Emerson's widow. After an initial loss, Ms. Emerson appealed, and the Supreme Court heard the appeal in 1957.
“Jefferson feared the Supreme Court, and foretold its usurpation of the legislative power of the Federal Government. His prophecy is now reality. The terrible evil he dreaded is upon us.”-The Chicago Tribune
Scott's case was built on the fact that due to Mr. Emerson bringing him into free territories, he should therefore be a free man. In the Supreme Court, Emerson's brother John Sanford claimed that Scott had no right to sue in Missouri federal court, as he was not a Missouri citizen.
The verdict was a 7-2 decision which denied Scott citizenship. This ruling, in turn, provided a legal justification for slavery and bigotry at the time, and seemingly clarified where the federal government stood on the issue.
It is the modern inclination to believe the Supreme Court reflected the entirety of the nation at the time. However, this was not entirely the case. Many feared the Supreme Court's display of power over the legislative branch. The Chicago tribune even spoke out against the motion.
It is our duty as Americans and as historians to look back upon the Dred Scott case as a backwards motion for the civil rights movement, and a sign of the discomfort at the time with the absolute power of the Supreme Court.