“The Supreme Court cannot change the essential nature of things – making evil good and good evil.”
Frederick Douglass, commenting on Dred Scott case (May 1857)
With the 2023-24 school year about to begin, the state of Florida, home to many full-time and seasonal Minnesota expatriates, is in the forefront of another educational tinderbox following others relating to book banning, stripping of diversity programs, and other machinations.
The Sunshine State’s Department of Education, at the behest of its governor and Republican presidential candidate, Ron DeSantis, has mandated that middle school students there be instructed that the institution of slavery helped enslaved people “develop skills” for their “personal benefit.” The new edict does not specify what those skills were or whether they extended beyond picking cotton and subservience to white people, among other features, or what “benefit” the people in bondage derived from their enslavement.
Promulgation of the directive, on the eve of the upcoming school year, sparked a firestorm, with even some Black GOP elected officials, objecting to the charisma-challenged governor, who seemed unfazed while sinking to a very distant second in the polls to former President Donald Trump. Undaunted, he doubled-down and blamed the contretemps on Vice President Kamala Harris for stirring up the controversy.
But the notion of slavery as providing a “personal benefit” to its subjects has a longer and more lasting legacy, which dates back 166 years to a landmark lawsuit that had its origins here in Minnesota.
The beneficial nature of enslavement was long bandied about as a justification by its proponents. But it achieved legal imprimatur by the Supreme Court’s decision in Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How) 393 (1857).
Described by knowledgeable observers as perhaps the most dreadful decision of the Supreme Court, it had its roots in Minnesota, where the claimant Dred Scott and his family, consisting of wife, Harriet, and two daughters, lived for two years in the mid-1830s at Fort Snelling. They stayed in the basement of the army base’s infirmary, which is still on the grounds of the site near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. They were enslaved to a military doctor, who also had them with him in Missouri, Illinois, and parts of Wisconsin. Much of that terrain was deemed “free” territory or states by virtue of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which basically established a proscribed boundary for slavery, supplementing the pre-constitutional Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
Scott became embroiled in a 11-year court battle after his master died, claiming that he was entitled to be freed from bondage because of his presence in Minnesota and other “free” areas.
But the Supreme Court would have no part of that. The court rejected his contention on grounds that the Missouri Compromise, which had already been repealed, was unconstitutional, the first time that body invalidated a federal law since Marbury v. Madison 5 U.S. 137 (1803). That ruling, by the way, established the principle of judicial review.
It reasoned, in phrases hauntingly familiar to the Florida school edict, that the Constitution extended only to white people, and because Black people, were not “citizens,” they could not sue. That decision, written by Chief Justice Roger Taney, a former enslaver who had freed his slaves, could have stopped there — a jurisdictional ruling without addressing the merits of Scott’s claim.
But it did not, going on to explain that because Black people were “so far inferior… [that] they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Because of that status, the court declared that, for these reasons, a Black person might justifiably and lawfully be “reduced to slavery for his (sic) benefit (emphasis supplied).
To compound the calumny, because Black people were regarded as inhuman “property,” or chattels, their movement could not be restricted, creating a license for slavery anywhere in the country, especially in the newly developing areas in the West and Southwest.
The developments following the Dred Scott ruling were monumental.
The ruling was linked to the premature leak of the ruling last year abrogating the constitutional right of abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 142 S.Ct. 2228 (2022). The Dred Scott decision had been leaked as well. The recipient of the premature disclosure was incoming President James Buchanan, a Northern slavery sympathizer from Pennsylvania, who mentioned it in his inaugural address two days before it was issued. Apprised of the imminent decision, he alluded to it in his Inaugural Address, urging the nation to “cheerfully” accept the upcoming ruling, which he forecast would be a dénouement to the vexing issue of slavery gripping the country.
But many were not so gleeful, and the ruling was hardly the denouement the 15th president expected.
It prompted a former one-term back-bencher in Congress, Abraham Lincoln, to return to the political arena. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Thus, the concept of slavery as a “benefit” to enslaved people, stemming from the historic case arising from Minnesota, has been converted from a jaundiced judicial precept to a modern pedagogical principle.
While that precept has not yet reached Minnesota — and might not ever — its historical roots are firmly planted in the soil of this state.
Lincoln’s Remarks on Slavery
Marshall H. Tanick is an attorney with the Twin Cities law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.
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