Dred Scott and John Brown


*In 1857, an apparently simple court case shattered 37 years of compromises.  This was the case of Dred Scott v. John Sandford [a mis-spelling of Sanford that has remained in the Court's records].  Etheldred Scott had been born in Virginia around 1799, but in 1830 his master’s family moved to Missouri.  When his master died in 1832, Scott was sold to an Army surgeon named Emerson, who subsequently was posted to several places in free states and territories.  In 1843 Emerson died, and his wife began to hire Scott out.  In 1846, he sued for his freedom on the grounds that he had lived for many years in free states and territories, but the Missouri courts found against him. 


*Scott tried to take it the Supreme Court, and in 1857, he presented his case against John Sanford, brother of the widow Emerson and executor of her husband’s estate to whom she said she had already sold Scott (although evidence for this sale is slim, and some historians believe the entire background was fabricated to force a test case).


*The Supreme Court ruled that Scott was not a citizen and therefore could not sue in a court, and that could have ended it.  However, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a Jackson appointee, wanted to prove a point and hopefully settle the question of the expansion or limitation of slavery once and for all.  In his majority opinion, Blacks--slave or free--were not citizens at all, and ‘the black man has no rights which the white man is bound to respect.’ 


*Furthermore, even if Scott could have legally sued, he still would have lost, because the federal government, thanks to the V Amendment, cannot deprive citizens of their property without due process of law.  That meant that simply living in or travelling through a free state did not automatically free someone's slave.  Finally, the Court ruled that Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise (already effectively repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act) were unconstitutional because Congress had no power to ban slavery anywhere, even if the new territories wanted it banned.


*Southerners were pleased.  Popular sovereignty men were irritated as this would be one more point of contention between the already fractious fire-eaters and abolitionists whom they had hoped to appease through their compromises.  Free-Soilers and abolitionists were outraged.  They claimed that the Court had not issued a decision, only an opinion, and dismissed the Court as a ‘Southern debating society.’  Republicans accused the Court of putting sectional politics above legality.  Southerners, in turn, were offended by these further attacks against the South and even, it seemed, against the Constitution which guaranteed the rights of the states.


*Scott’s mistress had married an anti-slavery man, Calvin Chafee, in 1850, and they arranged for Scott to be freed shortly after the case ended, and he died of tuberculosis as a free man 18 months later in 1858.


*In addition to this episode of national bitterness, the country suffered from economic problems. So much gold had been found in California that it created inflation.  The Crimean War had created a worldwide demand for grain, and westerners had increased crop production.  When the war ended, the market for grain collapsed.


*Early in 1857, before the Crash, Congress had a large surplus in the treasury.  Southerners said this proved the government did not need to raise as much money as it had been, and passed the Tariff of 1857, lowering the tariff to 20%, the lowest since the War of 1812.  This made things harder for Northern manufacturers, who resented the Tariff and the South.


*The drop in wheat prices, combined with inflation, bad speculation in railroads, and other problems led to a major economic crash, the Panic of 1857.


*The North, closely tied to the grain-growing West, was badly hurt.  The South, ruled by King Cotton, which was still very profitable, did just fine.


*People starved in Northern cities, and industrialists went bankrupt.  The Republicans chose to blame the South and the new Tariff for many of their problems.


*The demand in the North and West for free homesteads in the territories grew.  These would be quarter-section farms of 160 acres each.  This plan was opposed by Northern industrialists, who did not want their workers moving west for free land, and by Southerners, because 160 acres was not enough land for a full-scale plantation, so the scheme seemed tailor-made to deter the western expansion of slavery.  A homestead act selling land at only 25 cents an acre (a fairly nominal fee even then) was passed in 1860 but vetoed by President Buchanan.


*In 1858 a senatorial race in Illinois captured the nation’s attention.  The Little Giant, Stephen Douglas, was due for re-election, and the Republicans had chosen Abraham Lincoln to oppose him. 


*Lincoln was tall and scrawny, but tough—reputed to be one of the best, possibly the very best, athlete in the country, being particularly skilled at boxing, wrestling, and the long jump.  He was frequently called upon to judge athletic matches due to his acknowledge pre-eminence.  Born in a log cabin and mostly self-educated, Lincoln always spoke with a backwoods accent and was treated with scorn by those who met him for most of his life.  Although he made his career as a lawyer, and supposedly refused to take cases he could not in good conscience defend (so that he became known as ‘Honest Abe’), he had also worked at more menial tasks, including rail-splitting, a career for which he was remembered by both those who wanted to call him uncultured and those who wanted to present him as a common man.  Perceived as simple, he was actually very intelligent and tricky.  A former Whig, he had served one term in the US Congress (1847-1849) where he opposed the Mexican War, but after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, he became a prominent Republican speaker in the mid-west.


*In 1858, as the state legislature decided whom to appoint senator, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of debates, a very risky move, as Douglas was famous as a public speaker.  Lincoln did not have a great delivery in most cases, but he argued with great logic.  At a speech in Freeport, after the Dred Scott case, Lincoln trapped Douglas by asking what would happen if a territory voted against slavery.  Would the will of the people, expressed through popular sovereignty prevail, or would the position of the Supreme Court, that the government could not interfere with slavery anywhere force that peculiar institution on the new territory against the will of its inhabitants?


*Douglas and the popular sovereignty men had an answer for this already, and Douglas presented what came to be known as the Freeport Doctrine:  no matter what the Supreme Court ruled, slavery would stay down if the people wanted it down.  If the majority of the people in a territory or state did not want slavery, they would simply not import slaves, and would not make laws conducive to a slave society.  There were legal and peaceful means to exclude slavery from any place it was not welcome.


*Douglas won the senate seat, as popular sovereignty was still popular in the democratical west, and Douglas had friends in the state legislature.  Furthermore, these legislators were elected by the people, and people in the majority of the state’s voting districts chose pro-Douglas men, although some historians have suggested the a counting of the overall popular vote would have put pro-Lincoln men ahead.  Certainly many observers felt that Lincoln, by attacking slavery and the convoluted and contorted logic of its latest generation of supporters, had won a moral victory.  This also thrust him onto the national stage at a time when the Republican party was seeking leadership.  Douglas, on the other hand, won no more friends and may have even lost some by supporting slavery’s right to exist while suggesting legal ways to end it, annoying both North and South in the process.


*In October 1859 John Brown, the murderer of Pottawatomie, appeared in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia with twenty-one other men including three of his many sons (he had twenty children of his own in total, as well as an adopted black child). Sixteen of his followers were White and five were Black.  His plan was to seize the Federal arsenal in the town, and take the weapons to create an of freed blacks.  Initially they would form a nation in the mountains of Western Virginia from which they would raid the enslaved areas around them, freeing slaves and attracting runaways as they did so.  Eventually this would develop into a full-scale slave insurrection in the South, ending the peculiar institution forever.


*Brown and his men quickly seized the arsenal and took control of the town, killing seven civilians in the process, including one free black, and injuring ten more innocent bystanders.  Despite Brown’s hopes, Southern blacks did not rise to support him, largely because most did not know about it, although doubtless they remembered other attempts to start servile insurrections, and the failure of those revolts.


*A company of local militia tried to take the arsenal, and killed or mortally wounded eight of Brown’s followers, separated five more from the main group, and caused two more to give up and flee.  Brown, however, although he still had the power to escape, chose to remain.


*The next day, a detachment of US Marines arrived under the command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, who happened to be at his home near Washington on leave from his post as commandant of West Point.  They surrounded the arsenal and sent the young Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart under a white flag to offer Brown the chance to surrender.  He refused and the Marines stormed the building.  One tried to stab Brown with his bayonet, but hit him in the belt buckle, which deflected the blade.  Brown was beaten unconscious and arrested.


*Brown was tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia for trying to lead a revolution within the borders of the state.  Some of Brown’s friends tried to have him declared insane (and at least thirteen of his close relatives, including his mother, were known to be insane), but Brown would have none of that, and the governor of Virginia was not sympathetic.  The trial was legal, but very fast, and Brown was found guilty and sentenced to death.  He was hanged on 2 December 1859.  


*Some opponents of slavery, notably Harriet Tubman, considered him a hero for what he had done.  Others, such as Frederick Douglas (who knew of Brown’s plan before he tried it and advised him against it) considered Brown’s motives and dedication admirable, but his actions unwise and illegal (although he later praised Brown as being far more zealous against slavery than he was himself).  William Lloyd Garrison published a column in The Liberator, calling Brown's raid 'well-intended but sadly misguided.'  Abraham Lincoln felt Brown was a lunatic who had done the cause of ending slavery far more harm than good by giving it a bad name through his violence.


*A large number of Americans agreed with his execution—whatever his ends, leading a rebellion and provoking the South were not admirable methods for achieving them.  but others, especially in the  North, saw his execution as barely better than murder. 


*Nonetheless, many in the North saw his execution as barely better than murder.  To them, John Brown became a martyr, and in the coming years his soul would go marching on.

AP United States History Practice Exam and Notes

This page last updated 16 November, 2015.
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