Sunday, March 22, 2009

'So Blatant Was The Misleading'

12th of 45 excerpts from Lincoln by David Herbert Donald:
A decision handed down by the United States Supreme Court on March 6, 1857, two days after [James] Buchanan's inauguration, made the need for a Republican victory both more necessary and more likely. The ruling concerned the fate of Dred Scott, a Missouri slave, who had been taken by his owner, an army surgeon, first to Rock Island, Illinois, a state where slavery was prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance and by its own constitution, and subsequently to Fort Snelling, in Minnesota Territory, from which slavery had been excluded by the Missouri Compromise. After returning to Missouri, his master died. Scott sued for his freedom on the ground that he had been resident first of a free state and then of a free territory. Speaking for a majority of the justices, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (photo, below) ruled that Scott was not entitled to sue, because, as a Negro, he was not a citizen of the United States. At the time the nation was created, Taney pronounced, blacks were considered "so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.," and the Founding Fathers had not included them in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. . . .

Lincoln was reluctant to challenge the Court's ruling. He had enormous respect for the law and for the judicial process. He felt these offered a standard of rationality badly needed in a society threatened, on the one side, by the unreasoning populism of the Democrats, who believed that the majority was always right, and the equally unreasonable moral absolutism of reformers like the abolitionists, who appealed to a higher law than the Constitution. . . .

But the Dred Scott decision required him to rethink his position. . . . What troubled Lincoln most about the decision was the Chief Justice's gratuitous assertion that neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution was ever intended to include blacks. Lincoln declared bluntly that Taney was doing "obvious violence to the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration," which had once been held sacred by all Americans. Now, in order to make Negro slavery eternal and universal, the Declaration "is assailed, and sneered at, and construed, and hawked at, and torn till, if its framers could rise from their graves, they could not recognize it." So blatant was the Chief Justice's misreading of the law, so gross was his distortion of the documents fundamental to American liberty, that Lincoln's faith in an impartial, rational judiciary was shaken; never again did he give deference to the rulings of the Supreme Court.

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