For my latest book with the publisher Natur and Kultur in Sweden, I read through primary sources on a wide variety of historical topics –– books such as My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass; The South Vindicated from the Treason and Fanaticism of Northern Abolitionists; Cotton Is King and Pro-Slavery Arguments; The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Written by Himself, Containing a True and Full Account of the Discovery and Conquest of Mexico and New Spain; Captain James Cook’s journals from his 1774 vouage around the world; Britain’s 1832 New Poor Law (a monster of complexity); and the 1857 US Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (another monster).

By the way, you can find a lot of useful stuff on the Internet, but that doesn’t mean people are using it.  For instance for another book project, I watched a video yesterday which had 28 million views; My Bondage and My Freedom, by Frederick Douglass, has at last check only been downloaded from Project Gutenberg 1,823 times.

Nonetheless reading through old sources, I’m repeatedly impressed by what they tell us about our world.  For instance buried in the Dred Scott decision, the US Supreme Court candidly admits that Dred Scott is ”one who is held as a slave” –– which is semantically and legally different from being a slave.  Yet the court also indicates it must strike down Congress’s law which otherwise appears to grant him his freedom.

When legislators and courts fail to act courageously, others must.  Here the power of the pen failed humanity.

 

The Dred Scott Decision of 1857

Background: Dred Scott, his wife and their two daughters were taken by their master John Emerson, an army surgeon, from a slave state to a free territory.  Scott claimed this meant they were they free.  However the Supreme Court ruled that Dred Scott and his family were still slaves, which enraged public opinion in the North.  Below is an excerpt from Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s ruling.  Note the final phrases:

“The act of Congress, upon which the plaintiff Dred Scott relies, declares that slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, shall be forever prohibited in all that part of the territory ceded by France, under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of thirty-six degrees thirty minutes north latitude, and not included within the limits of Missouri. And the difficulty which meets us at the threshold of this part of the inquiry is, whether Congress was authorized to pass this law under any of the powers granted to it by the Constitution; for if the authority is not given by that instrument, it is the duty of this court to declare it void and inoperative, and incapable of conferring freedom upon any one who is held as a slave under the laws of any one of the States.”