The long convoluted path to sanity, then celebration.

January 20, 2009 | By | Reply More

Today I am celebrating the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States.   I know that most of you already think of Obama’s inauguration as old news, even though it only happened a few short hours ago.   Nonetheless, I am still celebrating and I’m proudly linking to a video of Obama’s swearing-in and inaugural address.

For most Americans, this is a day filled with symbolism and optimism.   It is worth remembering that today is also merely one of many points on a long convoluted line leading from the insanity of slavery to the day when a man with recent African ancestors became President (I say “recent” because we are all African).  A short 150 years ago, the same Nation that is now celebrating invited its Caucasian citizens to enslave and torture people of African ancestry.  “How far we’ve come,” I thought to myself as I walked through downtown St. Louis this afternoon.

I was on an errand, a mere hour after President Obama finished his speech, when I noticed that I was walking past the “Old Courthouse,” an historic St. Louis building that formerly housed the Missouri State Circuit Court for the City of St. Louis.

This building now serves as a museum, featuring the story of Dred Scott, the famous African American slave who was tried and who won his release before a St. Louis Jury in 1850.  Ironically, many visitors assume that this courthouse is a shameful place, but truly, a St. Louis jury decided that Dred Scott was a free man, not a slave.   It was while on appeal to the highest court in the land that Scott’s case got extremely ugly.

[Looking up at the top of the cast iron dome of the Old Courthouse, from the first floor.  The dome was “modeled after the dome in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.” The Courthouse was built during the Civil War, the section with the dome being completed in 1864.]

The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, applying all of the state of the art legal reasoning then available, thought and thought and thought some more before deciding that Dred Scott was actually “property,” and that his “owners” were free to buy, sell and abuse Dred Scott and multitudes of other “Negroes.”  Numerous highly trained Justices of the United States Supreme Court thus gave their assent to a reprehensible version of logic that was custom-designed to bolster its reprehensible opinion.

The Court’s reasoning is a vivid illustration that the first act of anyone wanting to commit heinous acts is to put on moral blinders.    Yes, according to the Supreme Court, the issues before it were mere technical issues, severely limited issues:

It will be observed, that the plea applies to that class of persons only whose ancestors were negroes of the African race, and imported into this country, and sold and held as slaves. The only matter in issue before the court, therefore, is, whether the descendants of such slaves, when they shall be emancipated, or who are born of parents who had become free before their birth, are citizens of a State, in the sense in which the word citizen is used in the Constitution of the United States. And this being the only matter in dispute on the pleadings, the court must be understood as speaking in this opinion of that class only, that is, of those persons who are the descendants of Africans who were imported into this country, and sold as slaves . . .

It is not the province of the court to decide upon the justice or injustice, the policy or impolicy, of these laws. The decision of that question belonged to the political or law-making power; to those who formed the sovereignty and framed the Constitution. The duty of the court is, to interpret the instrument they have framed, with the best lights we can obtain on the subject, and to administer it as we find it, according to its true intent and meaning when it was adopted.

This tactic is nowadays called copping out.  Translated it is the tactic of claiming that one’s hands are tied because one lacks courage to do what’s right.  The Supreme Court was pretending that it had no power.  You can imagine the justices thinking, “If we do what’s right, people will yell at us.  They will somehow fire us from these cool jobs.  They might hurt us.”  That’s what was going on–it’s always the same story: personal gain trumps moral excellence.  We all know that it didn’t really take twenty dense pages of legal reasoning to communicate that the Court was deciding to acquiesce to bigotry.

Because the Supreme Court decided that it was too inconvenient to open its heart and mind, Dred Scott and millions of other human beings were robbed of the chance to life normal lives.  Scott v. Sandford is thus one of the many low points on the path from the beginnings of American slavery to that historic day filled to the brim with hope: today.

It’s worth remembering, of course, that the U.S. Supreme Court, which was utterly bankrupt on the issue of slavery, came back to redeem itself in 1954, and repeatedly since then, in attempts to right those terrible wrongs they themselves helped to inflict.  And it’s a good thing that the Court eventually figured things out, or else today would have been impossible.


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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, History, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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