Highly Recommend Dred Scott History

I noticed Dave Hardy won an award from the African-American Genealogical Society for his work on the Dred Scott case. So I picked up a copy from Amazon. It’s not long. I got through it in an evening.

Imagine a reality in which people can own other people (buying them with or without a warranty), or a person can buy himself, and become free. A reality in which slaves can sue their masters, and have a jury decide whether they are really free. Into this not-alternate reality came a remarkable cast of Americans: Dred and Harriet Scott – the slaves whose suit for freedom sparked a battle in the Supreme Court and in the White House. John F. A. Sanford – the mountain man turned New York millionaire, who agreed to pose as the Scott’s owner so the suit could be filed. Rep. Calvin Chaffee – the prominent Massachusetts abolitionist, who was shocked to discover that he and his wife owned slaves, indeed the most famous slaves in the United States. Roger Taney – Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who tried to preserve the Union by protecting slavery, and instead brought on the Civil War and slavery’s abolition. James Buchanan – the President-elect who secretly connived with the Court’s pro-slavery Justices, seeking a ruling that would let slavery spread throughout the territories. Abraham Lincoln – the failed frontier politician who awoke one morning to realize that Taney and Buchanan had given him the roadmap to the White House.

I highly recommend it. This is not the story of the Dred Scott case you learned about in high school.

19 thoughts on “Highly Recommend Dred Scott History”

  1. Is this somehow relevant to the Second Amendment?

    That question isn’t intended to be critical. All history interests me, especially “hidden history,” but that also means I need to prioritize my reading list!

    (It also sounds like it could be categorized under “unintended consequences,” something more relevant than ever these days.)

    1. Not really, other than Dave’s primary area of writing is the Second Amendment. More that he did some good work in another area I thought was worth recognizing.

    2. Actually, yes. From the decision:

      For if they were so received, and entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police regulations which they considered to be necessary for their own safety. It would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognised as citizens in any one State of the Union, the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, singly or in companies, without pass or passport, and without obstruction, to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased at every hour of the day or night without molestation, unless they committed some violation of law for which a white man would be punished; and it would give them the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went. And all of this would be done in the face of the subject race of the same color, both free and slaves, and inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the State.

      Second Amendment rights, and the fact that they might be exercised by free blacks, were absolutely a factor.

        1. I don’t mean to give that impression.

          I merely wish to emphasize once again the deep links between oppression and gun control. That passage in Dred Scott is a particularly explicit example.

          1. Another eye-opening example is when California (under then Governor Reagan) passed NRA-backed gun control legislation in response to Black Panthers arming themselves.

      1. “Second Amendment rights, and the fact that they might be exercised by free blacks, were absolutely a factor.”

        I get that 2A rights were a factor, but it would seem that the overall concern was more that Negroes would “get uppity” and presume they had any rights at all.

        A subject that interested me recently was, that with few anecdotal exceptions at most, it did not seem that Negroes mounted very effective self-defense efforts during any of the many Reconstruction Era and early 20th century massacres of them that occurred. In those cases I read of, it appeared they were often poorly armed, but I wondered for each case if that was a product of “gun control” or simply economics.

        The question is underscored by, there were several relatively deadly slave rebellions (Nat Turner’s being the best known) prior to the Civil War, in the era when slaves would presumably have been most effectively disarmed; but Negroes defending themselves during Reconstruction did not appear to be as effective at fighting.

        1. A couple months ago I began reading about massacres in American history. I was somewhat inspired by Clayton Cramer’s work on “mass killings” in history, though I read up on massacres that weren’t necessarily perpetrated by only one or two people.

          I had in mind two things: Mass killings have been “as American as apple pie,” and in the cases of massacres of Negroes, what role did “gun control” play? (I had no intention of making apologies for or dismissing contemporary mass killings; I was just looking for “real history.” I also do not intend to imply that massacres are uniquely American. Consider the pogroms in the Russian Empire.)

          Below is a list of some of the highest profile massacres of Negroes. With very few were there any significant attempts at self-defense. In the case of the Hamburg Massacre, a “black militia” was involved, but appears not to have been effective.

          There were other massacres in the era involving Native Americans, labor organizers, and other races (e.g., Chinese) but the following imply the question of black self-defense or their inability of self-defense.

          Memphis Massacre, May 3, 1866

          New Orleans Massacre, July 30, 1866

          Camilla Massacre, Sept. 19, 1868

          Opelousas Massacre, Sept. 28, 1868

          St. Bernard Parish Massacre, Oct. 25, 1868

          Colfax Massacre, April 13, 1873

          White League Attacks Black Voters, Nov. 3, 1874

          Vicksburg Massacre, Dec. 7, 1874

          Clinton, Mississippi Massacre, Sept. 4, 1875

          Hamburg Massacre, July 8, 1876

          Danville Riot, Nov. 3, 1883

          Thibodaux Massacre, Nov. 23, 1887

          Polk County Massacre, Aug. 5, 1896

          Wilmington Massacre, Nov. 10, 1898

          Springfield Massacre, Aug. 14, 1908

          Slocum Massacre in Texas, July 29, 1910

          Elaine Massacre, Sept. 30, 1919

          Bogalusa Massacre, Nov. 22, 1919

          The Ocoee Massacre, Nov. 2, 1920

          Tulsa Massacre, May 31, 1921

          Rosewood Massacre, Jan. 1, 1923

          Terror Attack on African Americans in Catcher, Arkansas, Dec. 29, 1923

          1. Not your main point but you are not going to get an honest assessment of what happened and why from Howard Zinn.

            1. Yeah, I’m usually the first to say “a half-truth is a whole lie,” and I know who Howard Zinn was.

              In this case (as above) I used their list only as a starting point and a convenient list. Some of those articles have relatively little content of their own, some do. In every case I looked for additional sources.

              I don’t recall finding any examples of what was reported, being factually wrong. And of course I also limited my sources to ones that included terms like “self defense.” Where any bias could be detected, it was usually that some sources seemed inclined to accept the lowest estimates of the number of people massacred, while others would report the maximum. I believe that in the articles linked above, they usually cited the range if it was in question — minimum to maximum estimates.

              But like any long reading project, I could easily have overlooked something or missed a credible source that conflicted with what was generally reported. Since the point of our comments should be to get at the truth of things, if you are aware of any falsehoods reported in the linked sources, please let me know.

          2. With very few were there any significant attempts at self-defense.

            Of course, the ones that fail are the ones that get massacred. Possible selection bias at work, a reverse of survivor bias

            1. An excellent, excellent point! But the problem is identical to what we face today; how many crimes don’t occur because the potential victims were armed? But then you are stuck with people’s assessments of what would have happened, which is extremely variable, given most people’s predisposal to romanticize their own stories.

              The historical study would be tough, but extremely interesting; how many incidents were there where mobs of whites gathered to threaten blacks (for our example-subject) but then stood down when the blacks appeared to have the means to defend themselves? (I know there were some.) But what would make that tough would be, the whites would have presumably had control of the local media, and would not have reported anything implying even situational superiority on the part of blacks. So what we’re left with is bits and pieces of oral history, which is notoriously undependable and highly subject to the “romanticization” I cited.


              1. You might look into the rules that hamstrung blacks in obtaining firearms. One of which was very effective in limiting their availability. That was the “no cheap guns law”, where the sale of inexpensive guns was forbidden. Blacks got around this in a limited fashion by pooling their funds, and stationing the acquired gun at a central location for best response time.

                This technique might be adequate for a small KKK type raid against a single farm, but a concerted effort against multiple locations within that single gun’s coverage area would overwhelm any response. Communication becomes a critical feature in a pooled response scenario, along with tactical sense and gun handling expertise. As such, they were pretty much screwed if they had multiple attacks.

                1. I am curious to what degree blacks were “organized” in those times, and to what extent they coordinated with the Radical Republicans during Reconstruction. Because, it seems most local gun laws could have been easily circumvented by smuggling.

                  After about 1900 Bannerman was a source for mailorder military surplus that was incredibly cheap, at least by today’s standards. (Of course my own mother worked for $4 a week at one time, so a $1 gun would not have been exactly “cheap” for someone in her position.)

                  Part of my curiosity is that while I’m sure rural blacks were “unsophisticated” (with whites no better) they also must have had some level of “street smarts”, so I wonder at the cultural milieu that kept them from organizing for self-defense that they could see every day they needed.

                  To make a modern analogy, nothing in the way of “law” today stops people who governments don’t want to have guns, from obtaining them. It’s hard to believe that relatively unsophisticated state/local laws of 100 – 150 years ago had any more effect.

                  Sure enough, here’s one of my Old Stories that just came back to me: C. 1963 – 1965 (pre-GCA ’68) I used to hang out at a gun shop along Street Road, Warminster, here in Bucks County. I won’t name the name because maybe the owner’s relatives are still around. He had a sign behind the counter that said “We reserve the right not to sell a gun to anyone.” One day I commented on it. The owner said, “I will not sell a gun to any of our dark brethren. One of the good things about the gun business is no one will give you a hard time for refusing to deal with [n-words].” It was then that I realized that there was codified gun control, and cultural gun control, and I didn’t like either of them.

                  I was drafted about then, and by the time I got home the shop was out of business, mooting any bouts with conscience I might have had.

                2. When the Southern states passed their Jim Crow laws, the first three were always about voting, property and guns. The other stuff came after power was consolidated.

                1. Thanks! Amazon has it catalogued, of course, and our county library system does not. Of course.

                  The customer reviews at Amazon are somewhat interesting, as a study in individual biases.

                  Among the reviews I saw Robert F. Williams’ “Negroes with Guns” mentioned. I have that c. 1962 book. My ever-evolving perspective on history is that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, black “radicalism” was concentrated in a relatively few personalities; while through the 20th century it permeated more of black culture.

                  I can remember even here in staid old Quaker Bucks County, in the early 1960s people getting upset over the formerly quiet Negroes starting to “get uppity,” and in the Army I encountered militant blacks for the first time. But those are Old Stories for another thread.

                  1. Robert F. Williams “Negroes with Guns” is available as a PDF here. About Williams:

                    Williams obtained a charter from the National Rifle Association and set up a rifle club to defend blacks in Monroe from Ku Klux Klan or other attackers. The local chapter of the NAACP supported Freedom Riders who traveled to Monroe in the summer of 1961 in a test of integrating interstate buses. In August 1961 he and his wife left the United States for several years to avoid state charges for kidnapping related to actions during violence after the Riders had reached Monroe. These charges were dropped by the state when his trial opened in 1975 following his return. Williams identified as a Black Nationalist and lived in both Cuba and The People’s Republic of China during his exile between 1961 and 1969.

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