’s “What To The Slave Is The 4Th Of July” V. Justice Taney In Dred Scott Ruling Essay, Research Paper
In the years leading to the U.S. Civil War, the controversy over slavery became
not only a social issue, but also a political and legal one as well. Opponents and
proponents of slavery each looked to the American constitution, as well as the prevailing
culture of the time, for direction in dealing with this matter. Two such people who based
their landmark works on this were Justine Taney of the U.S. Supreme Court, and
Frederick Douglas, an emancipated slave, who fought tirelessly for the abolishment of
In 1852, Frederick Douglas was asked to speak at a July 4th celebration. In his
speech, he made it known clearly, his detestment for the treatment of Black slaves of the
day, as well as the irony and hypocracy, that was especially evident on that day. He
explained that this hypocracy aimed at the black population was evident on several fronts,
and so, he refers to the fourth of July as “ the birthday of your National Independence and
your political freedom.”
However, Frederick Douglas never lost hope. Although in his speeches and
writing he aludes greatly to the detestable and horrid facts black enslavement, he
nonetheless saw a silver lining. “There is hope in the thought,” Douglas said, after he
explicated how America is a new and young nation, despite it being around the “old age
for a man”. Since the United States was recently formed, there is still plenty of room for
reform and changes that would not have been possible had America been older.
America, he said, was still in the “impressible stage of her existance.”
As bleak and grim as the conditions were for blacks at the time, was nonetheless
optimistic about the idea that blacks will one day be accepted and absorbed in all the
ranks of society. He likened this to the analogy of rivers, which, he said, were like
nations. Even though a river can not be turned aside, “it may dry up”. If a nation “dries
up”, there will be nohing left of that nation, except a “withered branch”. This withered
branch is a symbol of what the nation believed in and what could happen to it if it
unfairly cast aside certain members of its society.
Douglas also pointed out that the Declaration of Independence was one of the
most valuable factors in the Nation’s destiny. The principles written in the Declaration of
Independence should be kept and adhered to. “Be true to to them on all occasions”, wrote
Douglas. He believed that most documents that were written after the Declaration of
Independence didn’t follow the significant ideology set forth in the Declaration of
Independence. Douglas wants to use the Constitution, but without the pro-slavery clause
In stark contrast to this, Justice Taney, who wrote the majority opinion of the
court in the case of Dred Scott V. Sandford, dealt a major blow to the work of Frederick
Douglas. In his opinion, Justice Taney uses the same reference points as Frederick
Douglas, only to twist it, and give it a pro-slavery slant.
Like Frederick Douglas, Justice Taney too makes mention of the Declaration of
Independence, but in this case, to prove that blacks were never intended to maintain full
legal citizen status here in the United States. This in itself was a very significant
statement, being that the Declaration of Independence, for all intent and purposes, is not a
legal document, and so, it is hardly ever used as a reference point in the courts. It seems
almost as though Justice Taney was speaking directly Frederick Douglas on this matter.
Justice Taney, in ruling on the question of black citizenship, not only dismisses
the idea of blacks as legal citizens, but also that human beings. He bases this ruling on the
letter of the law, but rather on the spirit of the law. Meaning, that since the birth of this
country, although not written explicitly, though nonetheless obvious, that blacks were
never intended to become citizens of this country. This was the very same hypocracy that
Frederick Douglas made mention to in his writings.
Justice Taney’s view of blacks as a sub-human race, or in legal terminology, as
property, was the essence of his reasoning in striking down the Missouri Compromise.
His decision illustrated that he didn’t even believe Blacks to be human beings. He viewed
them as ordinary property, and ultimatly using this reasoning to strike down the Missouri
Compromise as unconstitutional. This was due to the fact that by granting Mr. Scott his
freedom, the Congress was depriving Mr. Scott’s former owners of their constitutional
right to due process of the law.
This points to a monumental aspect in Justice Taney’s decision. The Missouri
Compromise, which was a Congressionaly enacted law, was designed to limit the
influence of Southern Slave states, by prohibiting slavery in the new territories. Now if
by its very nature (according to Justice Taney) this was unconstitutional, because it in a
sense confiscates a person property (slaves) without due process, then accordingly, black
slaves are constitutionally recognized as nothing more than sub-human property. This, in
itself, did not offer much prospect to black slaves, in terms of legal recourse in the courts.
This was the very point that Frederick Douglas was harboring on in his Fourth of
July speech. He said that although the “Negro race” has advanced, both socially and
academically, nevertheless, they have yet to be accorded with the proper social standing
due to them. Even though, he says, amongst the social ranks of the black community are
lawyers, doctors, ministers, academics, fathers, mothers and children, still, blacks “are
called upon to prove that we are men!”
Another difference between the views of Justice Taney and Frederick Douglas, is
the angle in which they see all of this. Justice Taney, in his tenure as a U.S. Supreme
Court Justice, is forced to look at it from a constitutional and legal and of course, a
logical perspective. His feelings on the question of black servitude and citizenship must
manifest itself in his legal opinion, which he writes for the court.
Frederick Douglas, on the other hand, although a respected figure amongst many,
takes not the political perspective, but more of a moral, and even religous outlook. This
evident throughout his writings, were he refers to Americans (in his time) as hypocrits.
Furthermore, he would usually end off his talks, albeit fiery and harsh, but also optimistic
and upbeat, with quotes from the bible. “I walk by faith and not by sight”, was a
desperate attempt to point out to blacks that they indeed had a future in America.
To Frederick Douglas, slavery should never have been a legal question, especially
when looking for direction in the spirit of the law, and the framer’s intent. In his Fourth
of July speech, he began by recounting, and heralding the American Framers of the
Constitution, and the great men that they were. He explained how their revolution came
about as a result of them not being in agreement with the laws as well as the ideals of the
fatherland (England). “They went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the measures
of government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive, and altogether such as ought not to
be quietly submitted to”. He urged his listeners to take a lesson in that respect from their
forefathers, and not to simply use their fathers to “eulogize the wisdom and virtues of
their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own”.
After reading the works of both Fredrick Douglas, as well as the decision Justice
Taney wrote on this case, one cannot help but look in astonishment at the prevailing
political and moral ideals held by many in the United States, at the time of the Civil War
(and after), versus that same culture held by people in the United States today. Justice
Taney never denied that blacks were human beings (or, 3/5 of a human being), rather,
they were of a lower life form, and as such, served only one purpose – to serve the white
It is further astonishing to note how Justice Taney and Frederick Douglas, drew a
parallel for their reasoning from that of the political and moral culture held by the
founding fathers, respectively, and yet, each concluded differently.
Ultimatly, this prevailing political environment, had gripped the hearts and minds
of all Americans during that trying era. The fate of the Nation was eventually to be
decided on the battlefield, in one of the costliest and bloodiest wars this nation has ever