"The Dred Scott Case"
Harper's Weekly, March 28, 1857, page 193 (Editorial)
The opinions of the Court in this case are not yet before the public. One or two of the dissenting opinions have leaked out somewhat irregularly, but we have as yet no authentic mode of knowing precisely what the Court, as such, has decided. It is therefore premature, and somewhat unsafe, to attempt to criticise a judgment the reasons of which are not before us; but as it is generally understood that we have the points which have been ruled, it may not be amiss to consider what is likely to be the practical effect of the decision which is, in certain quarters, producing such a fervid heat.

It is understood, then, that the Court has decided that free negroes are not citizens of the United States. This is a point that has been so held heretofore by the State Courts of Connecticut, which has been disposed of administratively in the same way by the Department of State in refusing passports to free Africans, and which our commentator, Kent, states as a point of nicety and difficulty. Nor does it appear that the question of the citizenship of our free black population is a question likely to take any practical shape capable of profoundly agitating the public mind. We are indeed a consistent and reasonable people! We have among us a small representation of a tropical race of human beings, marked off from us by the unmistakable line of color, if by nothing else, and over whom we daily arrogate to ourselves of the Caucasian stock a complete and absolute superiority. We will not marry with them, we will not eat with them, as a general rule we do not let them vote, we will let them hold no office.  We do not allow them to kneel beside us to worship the Great Father of all; not even when we approach the end of our weary journey will we allow our miserable dust to repose side by side with theirs in the common receptacle of humanity. And yet, when half a dozen old lawyers at Washington, after racking their heads for two years over a question that has bothered the Robe for half a century, announce as their decision that free blacks are not citizens of the United States, and as such not permitted to sue in certain courts of limited and special jurisdiction, we fume, and fret, and bubble, and squeak, as if some dreadful injustice and oppression were committed.  It really does not seem to us that this part of the Dred Scott decision is likely to produce any very serious practical results.

In the second place, the Supreme Court have decided that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, and that Congress has no power to prohibit slavery in the Territories. If this question had been so decided three years ago, it might have been considered formidable, but of what practical effect is it now? The party in power -- certain to be in power in two branches of the Government at least for the next four years -- have announced it as their fixed and unalterable determination to leave the question of slavery to the Territories themselves. When then, or how is the case to arise, which shall give to this branch of the decision any practical force?

In the third place, the Supreme Court have decided, that if a black, who is a slave in a slave State, is taken into a State by the laws of which he becomes free, and subsequently returns into the State whence he came, he reverts to his original condition of slavery. It is constantly stated that the Supreme Court has decided the right of transit, as it is called; that is to say, that slave-owners have a right to come into or pass through the free States with their slaves, and that as long as they do not fix their residence in a free State, their right of property will be held sacred. It is very obvious that nothing of the kind has been decided in the Dred Scott case. Whatever may be the inclination of the Supreme Court on this point, they have as yet not touched it.

But suppose they had -- suppose they do -- what will be the practical effect of the decision? Suppose in the Lemon case (all these slave cases are sour enough) they do decide this very question? As an abstract or theoretical question, it is one of the most delicate that could be started; for if our Southern brethren are to come on to Saratoga or to Newport for the season, with their sable dependents, and if during their sojourn the domestic institution is to be hedged round and protected with all the majesty of the law, it is plain that the occasions of contest, collision, difficulty, and turmoil would be endless.

Practically, however, the question is probably not so serious. It is idle -- unfortunately, perhaps, but very certainly -- it is idle to attempt to enforce any laws in this country against a general public opinion. There is not a State, nor a county in a State, where it can be done; and simply because the Government has no force to compel obedience to its mandates. We have seen it in multitudinous cases. The Anti-Rent difficulty -- the Native American disputes in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Louisville -- the fate of the gamblers at Vicksburg -- the destruction of the convent at Boston -- every where it is the same thing. We have seen it, and are seeing it every day, in regard to this very subject of slavery. A Fugitive Slave law was passed six years ago, giving the master stringent provisions to recover his property, and the assistance of the whole Federal authority to reclaim him. What has been the result? One poor devil of a fugitive was returned -- it cost $!100,000, more or less; and since then, in the Eastern States, and New York at all events, the law has practically been a dead letter, and the slaves are making their way northward all the while. The idea that any decision of the Supreme Court can reestablish slavery in the Free States is a bugbear -- an absurdity.

The only result, therefore, that we can arrive at is, that however repugnant the Dred Scott decision may be to the feelings of a portion of the Northern States, it can have no practical effects injurious to our tranquillity, or to our institutions. The subject of slavery will be left to be decided, as it ultimately must be, by the laws which govern labor and production.

It is, indeed, most devoutly to be desired that this great question could be left to be determined exclusively by those laws, free from the interference of the hot-heads of the press and of the pulpit. If we would but permit Nature to have her own way for only a few short years!

It is very plain that a fermentation of the most important character is going on in the middle belt of States, comprising Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri. The emigration of slaves from Virginia southward, the legislative discussion going on in Missouri, the agitation in Kentucky, all show that those great agricultural States, unsurpassed in the Union for their resources of every kind, must soon seriously discuss the subject in a strictly economical point of view.

Is it the interest of the landholders of those States to continue that form of labor? Is there any thing in the condition of Missouri, Virginia, or Kentucky, that should induce them to continue practically to exclude the immigration of the white man? Will not the adoption of another system of industry increase the value of every man's property in those States?

When political agitation shall have ceased, and the fires of religious fanaticism are burned out, these are the points on which this matter must ultimately be determined. It is a question which does not lie in the path of our duty. We have no doubt, however, how it will finally be decided, nor have we any doubt how it would have been decided years ago if every agency that human wit can devise had not been systematically employed at once to excite the passions and blind the judgment of those to whom alone the disposition of the question rightfully belongs.
Harper's Weekly, March 28, 1857, page 193 (Editorial)


In March 1857, shortly after Harper’s Weekly began publication, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Scott, a slave, had previously traveled with his master, an army surgeon, to the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Minnesota. Later, the two returned to the doctor’s home in Missouri, a slave state. After his master died, Scott sued for his freedom, arguing that he had become free by residing in free territory.

In the majority opinion Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that Scott was still a slave with no standing to sue; that black Americans (slave or free) were not American citizens and did not have civil rights protected by the U.S. Constitution; and that neither the territorial government nor the federal government could ban slavery in the territories. The latter finding made the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery unconstitutional, although that law had already been repealed by Congress in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

Harper’s Weekly downplays the significance of the Dred Scott decision. This commentary, written by publisher Fletcher Harper Sr. or managing editor Theodore Sedgwick, argues that the high court’s holding that blacks are not citizens is in line with lower court rulings, State Department policy, and other legal and social restrictions. The editorialist also dismisses as unimportant the more controversial declaration that the Missouri Compromise is unconstitutional. He contends, as Senator Stephen Douglas would, that such an interpretation is in accord with the popular sovereignty policy of the governing Democratic party. The editor concludes that the Dred Scott decision "can have no practical effects injurious to our tranquility, to our institutions."


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