The black slave whose failed bid for freedom led to the American Civil War

This is the ninth of my posts based on a recent tour of the eastern half of the USA. I visited a number of sites relevant to African American history. To mark Black History Month, I am relating some of the things I saw, in the order I saw them.

I enjoyed a visit to the wonderful US Capitol “Visitor Center”. At presumably astronomical expense, a fantastic underground visitors’ entrance has been built on the east side of the Capitol. You enter it and are taken on a tour of the US Capitol where you go up inside the centre of the building.

The old central bits of the building are steeped in history. My photo above shows the Old Supreme Court Chamber. From 1810 until 1860 it was in use as the USA’s premier court.

In this room, the historic case of Dred Scott was decided. Wikipedia states:

Dred Scott (c. 1799 – September 17, 1858) was an enslaved African American man in the United States who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom and that of his wife and their two daughters in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857, popularly known as the “Dred Scott Decision”. Scott claimed that he and his wife should be granted their freedom because they had lived in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory for four years, where slavery was illegal. The United States Supreme Court decided 7–2 against Scott, finding that neither he nor any other person of African ancestry could claim citizenship in the United States, and therefore Scott could not bring suit in federal court under diversity of citizenship rules. Moreover, Scott’s temporary residence outside Missouri did not bring about his emancipation under the Missouri Compromise, which the court ruled unconstitutional as it would “improperly deprive Scott’s owner of his legal property”.

While Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had hoped to settle issues related to slavery and Congressional authority by this decision, it aroused public outrage, deepened sectional tensions between the northern and southern U.S. states, and hastened the eventual explosion of their differences into the American Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and the post-Civil War Reconstruction Amendments—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments—nullified the decision.

Yes, you read that correctly – in this room (photo above) the Supreme Court of the United States decided that an African American was his owner’s property. It is quite astonishing to read that nowadays. I have to admit that I was very moved to have set foot in such an historic place.

The docent who guided us around the Capitol reminded us that there were forty years of fierce debate, trying to avoid conflict, before the Civil War broke out. Part of this forty years of debate was the amazing story of the caning of Charles Sumner, which gives us some idea of the heightened tensions. Here’s Wikipedia again:

(this) occurred on May 22, 1856, in the United States Senate when Representative Preston Brooks (D-SC) attacked Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA), an abolitionist, with a walking cane in retaliation for a speech given by Sumner two days earlier in which he fiercely criticized slaveholders including a relative of Brooks. The beating nearly killed Sumner and it drew a sharply polarized response from the American public on the subject of the expansion of slavery in the United States. It has been considered symbolic of the “breakdown of reasoned discourse” that eventually led to the American Civil War.

In fact, Charles Sumner was so badly injured in the caning that it took him three years to recover enough to return to Congress.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is currently taking a break from his role as one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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This entry was posted in LDVUSA.


  • A great series of articles, Paul. Thank you.

    One of our greatest memories of Washington is standing on the exact spot on the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King made his great ‘I have a Dream’ speech – and doing it on the morning that Barack Obama was first elected. You could feel the joy and electricity in the air that morning.

    Presidents come and go – I hope I live long enough to see the Trump person go and be forgotten – and that we avoid too many horrors in the mean time.

  • Paul,
    What is astonishing is how recent all this was.
    Lord Mansfield freed James Somerset, in 1772, in a ruling held to mean an end to slavery in Britain in a judgement which included the words
    “It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it,”
    It took nearly a century for the same sentiment to reach the Southern US

  • Lorenzo Cherin 9th Oct '17 - 3:34pm

    Really fabulous, an unbelievable chapter described, of the history of that horrifying aspect of the US , in which you illustrate how the D and R labels reversed only later, bit by bit the regional and philosophical changes happening to make the Democrats become the advocate for progress that the Republicans were and are rarely now !


    I too was in the USA that day, but in New Jersey, seems a little while ago in the Trump era we are in ! Whenever I see Obama, most recently with Prince Harry at Invictus, I miss him !

  • Richard Underhill 15th Jan '19 - 11:22pm

    In a recent episode of “Who do you think you are” on tv a celebrity who expected to find some slavery in his background in Jamaica was shocked to find that an ancestor had been paid compensation (at UK taxpayers’ expense) for the financial loss of his property when the UK parliament voted to abolish chattel slavery (years after they had ended the Atlantic slave trade). Sorry I do not remember his name.
    The Lib Dems were founded with no policy, so as to provide all members with an equal democratic say.
    One of the first motions debated at federal conference was a motion opposing slavery, which, unsurprisingly, passed. There were many horrific details from the speakers.

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