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Modern Voices
David Blight on the Dred Scott decision
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Q: Please discuss the significance of the Dred Scott decision.
David Blight

A: The significance of the Dred Scott decision is that it comes in the wake of Bleeding Kansas, it comes three years after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The country has now struggled for three years to understand the implications of popular sovereignty in the West and how the West would be settled, free or slave. And now this case of old Dred Scott finally gets to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court says not only did Dred Scott not have the right to even sue in a federal court because he's black and [not] a citizen, but it goes one step further. It goes for a much broader decision, and in Chief Justice Taney's words, blacks had no rights which whites had to recognize.

In the wake of the Dred Scott decision, spring of 1857, to be black in America was to live in the land of the Dred Scott decision, which, in effect, said, "You have no future in America." So, for the next three to three and a half years, down to the outbreak of the Civil War -- and we must remember, nobody knew that war was coming when it was coming -- to be black in America in the late 1850s was to live in a land that said you didn't have a future.

In the North, legislatures and Republican politicians responded to the Dred Scott decision by questioning whether this was a Supreme Court decision that they should abide by -- one of the issues that was clearly at stake in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Stephen Douglas pressed Lincoln on this, of course, and Lincoln, in effect, ultimately said that the Republican Party would remain hostile to the Dred Scott decision.

The Dred Scott decision did cause a genuine level of despair in northern black communities by the summer of 1856, and for some years after that. In speech after speech, in 1857 and '58, Frederick Douglass would do his customary thing: He would begin with hope in his speech, but he usually ended his speeches in 1857 and '58 with that Biblical line that said, uh, "I walk by faith and not by sight." He was struggling by that point to make the argument to his fellow blacks that they had a future in America.

That period between 1857 and the outbreak of the war in 1861 is a time of increasing desperation among northern black leadership. They begin to struggle even with each other over how to define their futures. They have bitter debates over immigration schemes and whether to stay in America, whether to join this Republican Party, or find some way to join it, whether to organize even some kind of third political party movement. There had been a movement in the '50s called the Radical Abolition Party. It's a desperate time for black leaders because they've been told now that their people have no future in the country, and their struggle now is to define a future.

The Dred Scott decision, the birth of the Republican Party, this whole new political crisis over slavery, is also important in the South among slaves themselves. We have plenty of evidence that shows us that, beginning in 1856, with the presidential election campaign of 1856, and again in '58 Congressional elections, and certainly in 1860, there's a lot of reaction in the Southern white press, saying that slave owners should keep their slaves away from political meetings, because the more slaves gather around these political meetings, the more they're going to become aware of the political crisis over slavery.

And from 1856 to the outbreak of the Civil War, there's a great deal of talk in the southern press about what were called "insurrection scares". There were insurrection scares particularly in Texas in 1860. Now, often these were plots about which people knew next to nothing. These were fears as much as they were reality. But there's no question that among the slaves in the South, in certain areas, they were becoming completely aware that there was a larger political crisis out there in the land over them, over slavery.

David W. Blight
Professor of History and Black Studies
Amherst College




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