In 1857, the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision explicitly struck down the Missouri Compromise Act and declared that Congress had no authority to exclude slavery from the territories. The Dred Scott decision saw it as unconstitutional to deprive a U.S. citizen of his property in slaves “without due process of law” merely because that citizen entered a territory where slavery was prohibited.
According to Justice Roger Taney in Dred Scott, negroes are not included in the designation “citizens” in the Constitution and can thus claim none of the rights or privileges the Constitution provides for U. S. citizens. Taney claims that even at the time of the Founding the negroes were “considered a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race” and had no rights or privileges except those the government chose to grant them. Taney asserts that, at the time of the Founding, the status of the negro as an article of merchandise was “regarded as an axiom in morals and politics, which no one thought of disputing.” Furthermore, Taney argues that simply because Dred Scott enjoyed the privileges of citizenship in one state—Illinois—does not make him a citizen of the United States or eligible to sue in a federal court; Taney claims that because Congress was constitutionally invested with the power to establish a uniform rule of naturalization throughout the U.S., this power is exclusive, and no state can, by naturalizing an alien, secure to him the rights and privileges of a U.S. citizen.
Justice John McLean, in his dissent to the decision, pointed out Taney’s historical error: at the time of the Founding, several states had admitted free persons of the color to the suffrage—thereby recognizing them as citizens. Furthermore, being colored is not and has never been an inherent disqualifier for citizenship; after the Mexican War, the U. S. made citizens of “all grades, combinations, and colors.”
According to McLean, neither the Constitution nor the Founders explicitly promoted slavery; rather, slavery was an institution imposed on the colonies by their mother country—and the Founders were careful to guard the Constitution’s language against mentions of slavery. Justices McLean and Curtis argued, contra Taney, that every free person born on the soil of a state and who is a citizen of that state is also a citizen of the United States. Furthermore, they defended the Missouri Compromise’s constitutionality; it was passed overwhelmingly by Congress and approved as constitutional by the President; until the Dred Scott decision, no one had thought of questioning its constitutionality—for that would also call into question the constitutionality of Congress’s first act: the renewal of the Northwest Ordinance and its prohibition on slavery in the Northwest territories.
In his response to the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln answered Taney’s claim that the Founders could not have possibly meant that blacks deserved the same inalienable rights as whites because that would imply a clear hypocrisy on the Founders’ part. For Lincoln, the Declaration’s purpose was not to declare all people equal in all respects—such as color, size, intellect, moral development, or social capacity—but rather to announce the principle of equality on the basis of certain inalienable rights.
According to Lincoln, the Founders did not mean to assert that all men were actually enjoying this equality nor about to receive it. “They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement would follow as soon as possible.” The maxim of equality was placed in the Declaration for future use; the equality of all men in their unalienable rights was a state to aspire toward—and the Declaration was meant to motivate their aspiration.
In the same speech, Lincoln responded to Stephen Douglas’s interpretation of the Declaration as saying only that the British subjects residing in the colonies were equal to the British subjects residing in Great Britain and thus justifying the colonists’ separation from the Crown. Lincoln considers this interpretation absurd; it would not only deny the equality of negroes’ rights, but also those of the people of French and German descent in the U. S. Furthermore, if the Declaration only justified the colonists’ separation and did nothing else, it would be of no practical use now and be “at most, an interesting memorial to a dead past.” Lincoln rejected this view and sought to apply the Declaration’s principles to the slavery issue in earnest.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre, Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, weekly columnist for GrasstopsUSA.com, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov also publishes his articles on Helium.com and Associated Content to assist the spread of rational ideas. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at email@example.com.