Most of us know of and many can even recite President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address delivered during the Civil War on November 19, 1863. And most of us know of and probably sometimes paraphrase his House Divided speech delivered when he was a candidate for United States Senator in Illinois (June 16, 1858). Lincoln lost to Stephan Douglas whom Lincoln later beat for the presidency in 1860.
The topic might be a little heavy for a short weekly newspaper column but with our country’s birthday this week and the country in a perpetual state of mutual invective I humbly submit it is worth our attention.
In an attempt to pare down the extremely complex and emotionally charged issues of our country’s Negro slavery, the Civil War, our current status in re civil rights and the cacophony of our public discourse, I will just refer to a few items: (1) The United States Constitution, (2) the Missouri Compromise, (3) the Kansas-Nebraska Act and, (4) the Dred Scott case as decided in 1857 by the U.S. Supreme Court. If you are still with me, I caution it gets worse.
Originally slavery was recognized as a States Rights issue, i.e., if a state wanted slavery and wanted to be part of the Unionthat was okay. But as a device to apportion the number of a state’s congressmen, the Constitution declared Negroes in eachstate would be counted as 3/5 of a person for census purposes. However, African Americans were not made citizens until the Civil War via the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Of course, Indians were not included, and women of any race could not vote until 1920 via the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
Because of the great divide between free and slave states, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was enacted, although many argued it was unconstitutional. The Missouri Compromise allowed for the admission of Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state and prohibited slavery north of a certain parallel (36°30’) but allowed it below that border.
This worked alright until heightened tensions arose between slave and free states so Senator Stephan Douglas in 1854 got the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, which allowed for the admission of the states of Kansas and Nebraska to the union with the provision of slavery by popular majority vote of each state’s citizens. Of course, this was not within the spirit or the substance of the Missouri Compromise.
Then in 1857 the United States Supreme Court decided the Dred Scott case. Scott, was a slave whose owner had taken Scott with the owner to live in a free state then returned with him to Missouri. Scott sued for his freedom claiming that once he was in a free state he was then after always free.
Precedent as old as a decision from colonial times in 1772, the Somerset case, was clearly with Scott and most legal authorities, including the lawyer Abraham Lincoln, expected the Supreme Court to declare Scott free. How wrong he and many others were.
Chief Justice Roger Taney a former slave owner and fierce opponent of the Missouri Compromise, ignored established precedent and used Dred Scott’s case to declare no Negro could ever be a citizen of the United States and that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. Taney’s overreaching andpoorly reasoned opinion led directly to the Civil War four years later.
According to the historian Paul Finkelman who wrote the book Dred Scott v. Sandford, A Brief History with Documents:
“By the 1850s Taney was a seething, angry, uncompromising supporter of the South and slavery and an implacable foe of racial equality, the Republican Party, and the anti-slavery movement.”
See p. 29
Taney declared that Blacks:
“[A]re not included and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution… [T]hey were at that time (1787) considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings….”
ibid p. 35
Stephan Douglas held the position the question of slavery should be a matter of state option. Abraham Lincoln on the other hand foresaw that a nation half-slave and half-free, that is a nation divided against itself, could not survive. We are still working that out after 242 years. Happy Birthday!