As we saw yesterday, in the notorious Dred Scott decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that, to all intents and purposes, rights come from the State and are vested in the people at the discretion of the State. Under traditional natural law theory, of course, rights are inherent in each human being, and are vested in the State at the discretion of the people. As Pius XI pointed out,
“But on final analysis, even in this latter function [i.e., man is not made to live alone, but in society], society is made for man, that he may recognize this reflection of God's perfection, and refer it in praise and adoration to the Creator. Only man, the human person, and not society in any form is endowed with reason and a morally free will.” [Emphasis added.] (Divini Redemptoris, § 29.)
After the Civil War, Congress adopted the “Reconstruction Amendments” to the Constitution. These were the 13th, that abolished chattel slavery, and the 14th, that, in relevant part, overturned Scott v. Sandford. The 14th Amendment was intended to secure the full spectrum of natural rights to every single human being. The idea was to recognize for all time that rights are inherent in actual, flesh and blood human beings, not the State or society in any form.
It lasted less than five years. In 1873 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in “the Slaughterhouse Cases.” We’ve covered the details of this fiasco before, so we won’t do it again today. The important thing is that the Court took the first opportunity that presented itself to nullify the 14th Amendment and reassert the new theory that rights come from the State . . . but in a way that allowed the Court to go in the other direction if it was found to be convenient or expedient in the future. As Crosskey explained,
“So, the Court’s opinion in the Slaughter-House Cases was, undoubtedly, most craftily written; written so as to enable the Court, with a good face, in future cases, to jump either way: to observe the intended meaning of the Privileges and Immunities Clause if that seemed unavoidable, or, in the alternative, to destroy the clause utterly if this seemed safe. And the fact that this elaborate preparation was made also means that the majority Justices saw and fully comprehended the possibility of the intermediate, plain, and sensible meaning of the Privileges and Immunities Clause here expounded, to which, indeed, Justice Bradley called attention, in his dissenting opinion. So, the majority must, as the minority charged, already have determined, if they dared, to destroy this new provision of the Constitution [i.e., the Fourteenth Amendment] completely. (William Winslow Crosskey, Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1953, 1130.)
For our purposes, the import of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Slaughterhouse was that it turned private property from a natural right, into a prudential grant from the State. Private property could now be defined both as to existence and to exercise as the government saw fit. This completely undermined the natural law basis of the government of the United States.
Crosskey saw Slaughterhouse as a watershed judicial event in the history of the United States. He wasn’t wrong. Many people today, especially in the Pro-Life movement, view Roe v. Wade in the same light. Roe v. Wade would have been inconceivable, however, had not the Supreme Court’s opinion in Slaughterhouse upheld the Dred Scott decision and nullified the 14th Amendment. This laid the foundation for the expansion of State power beyond all bounds and the establishment and maintenance of the Servile State.