Dred Scott and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision that effectively launched the United States into Civil War.

And so, on March 6, 1857, before a country that was a tinderbox, the court struck a match. In a harsh, racially driven majority opinion written by Chief Justice Taney, the court rejected Dred Scott's claim for freedom, holding that blacks in bondage were property without rights and Congress had no power to halt the spread of slavery.

Chief Justice Taney intended to end the slavery controversy forever by resolving every slavery issue in favor of the South. Instead, his opinion, which effectively nationalized slavery, made sectional compromise impossible and hurled the country toward the abyss. A wave of Northern outrage descended on Chief Justice Taney, while the South warned that unless the North accepted the opinion, there would be disunion.

The law of unintended consequences ruled the day - something the chief justice came bitterly to understand.

1 comment:

Paul Hue said...

Fascinating article. I didn't know these vital facts about Dred Scott:

- Chief Justice Taney who wrote the majority opinion was a former slaver... who'd freed his own slaves and attended a church pastored by an abolitionist -- whom he defended from pro-slavery tyrants.

- The owner of Dred Scott moved to Mass. ... where she married an abolitionist and freed Scott and his family.

But I don't buy the author's point about not having the kids read the Supreme Court opinions, nor about this story so clearly standing as an obvious example of "unintended consequences."

Many of the Founders and legal authorities from the very start through today have believed that the language of the US constitution precluded slavery, with the 3/5ths clause standing as a contradiction of the rest of the document. I think a consideration of both Scott supreme court opinions in light of other sources of fact and logic would serve as an unbeatable learning exercise. I also think that learning all these other facts presented here by the author (including how the one justice thought that his opinion would settle the slavery question rather than push its contention into one of humanity's worst ever bloody conflicts) would make for a variety of riveting lessons. It escapes me why anybody would want advocate *not* having high school kids read these decisions, if only to show examples of poor writing and faulty logic.

More apparent to me in demonstrating the concept of "unintended consequences", the Scott story demonstrates that even villains have their attractive qualities. For example, in addition to the unexpected facts about Justice Taney and Scott's master, we see that the population of people who practiced slavery in the US -- honkies -- include a substantial portion who devoted themselves to its abolition.

I do not understand any apprehension about having high school kids read the Scott decisions; nor in using the Scott decision to warn such kids about "unintended consequences."