As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted in Democracy in America that the failure to resolve the issue of slavery and the treatment of Native Americans could undermine the foundations of American liberal democracy. Nor were the popes unaware of the dangers of a “democracy” that permitted some people to be treated like things.
|Pope Gregory XVI|
In 1837 Pope Gregory XVI issued In Supremo, an encyclical condemning the slave trade. Although it is clear from the context that the pope used “slave trade” as a synonym for the institution of slavery itself, and his effort was directed primarily at the United States, bishops in the American South hastened to reassure their flocks that the encyclical did not apply to them.
While not excusable, this is understandable. From 1803 to 1937 cotton was the single largest export of the United States. Fortunes were built and maintained on the cultivation of cotton, and it had all been made possible by the invention of the cotton gin. Slavery was beginning to fade when Eli Whitney’s invention removed the bottleneck from cotton production and increased fifty-fold the rate at which it could be processed. Demand for slaves increased in proportion.
So did demand for more land. Cotton is easy to grow but depletes soil of essential nutrients. Absent a program of rotating crops or otherwise restoring the land, cotton cultivation — and slavery — had to keep moving west into the new territories. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 attempted to maintain a balance of political power between slave states and free states, but economic pressures were building up. Cotton was simply too profitable.
In 1855 David Christy, a former abolitionist, published Cotton is King. (David Christy, Cotton is King, or, The Culture of Cotton, and its Relation to Agriculture, Manufactures and Commerce; to the Free Colored People; and to Those Who Hold that Slavery is In Itself Sinful; by an American. Cincinnati, Ohio: Moore, Wilstach, Keys, 1855.) Christy claimed that the economic survival of the United States and the British Empire depended on the slave cultivation of cotton. Economic necessity therefore dictated slavery must continue. (Christy was not the first one to make these arguments but gave them their most persuasive form. See, for example, “Whig Principles: What’s Left of Them” from the Democratic magazine, The United States Review, December 1854, Vol. 34, No. 12, 465-477.)
Two years later the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision that not only changed the entire basis of the government of the United States, it changed history — and not for the better. This was Scott v. Sandford, (60 U.S. 393 (1857).) known to history as the Dred Scott case, one of the worst decisions ever handed down by a court of law in a presumably free society.
|Roger Brooke Taney|
The facts are straightforward. Dred Scott (1799-1858) argued that since he had been taken to a state where slavery was illegal, he was ipso facto free. Scott had previously attempted to purchase his freedom, but his master refused. The Missouri Supreme Court held for Scott but was overturned on appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
In his opinion Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney (1777-1864) ignored thousands of years of natural law theory as well as the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Contrary to the intent of the framers, Taney held that “persons” and “citizens” are synonymous terms in the U.S. Constitution. Since citizenship is granted by the State (so Taney argued), so are the “natural” rights that confer personality. (Ibid.)
In Taney’s line of reasoning, because Dred Scott was not a citizen but an “inferior being,” he was ipso facto not a person. He therefore had no standing in the court and could not sue for anything, much less his freedom: “[W]hether emancipated or not, [Negroes have] no rights or privileges but such as those who [hold] the power and the Government might choose to grant them.” (Ibid.)
Taney’s decision changed the U.S. Constitution from a delegation of rights from people in order to create a government, to a grant of rights from the government to create persons. He rejected the theory, pivotal in the formation of the United States, that certain rights inhere by nature in human beings, making them automatically and irrevocably persons.
We will look at how any American jurist could possibly hand down such a decision in the next posting on this subject.