Thursday, July 23, 2015

Ableman v. Booth - federal government rules all. Taney was a false literalist.

Roger B. Taney
I love when things intersect. I recently finished the book "Dead Eye: Pennies for the Ferryman" in which former US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney's ghost was a mobster who ruled over a large section of the east coast of the US.

The name sounded familiar to me, but it wasn't until I read about Ableman v. Booth in Britannica that I learned that Taney made some major pro-slavery rulings during his tenure.

Ableman v. Booth was a decision that ruled that state courts cannot issue rulings that contradict rulings from federal courts. The Wisconsin Supreme Court attempted to rule the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 unconstitutional, despite a federal ruling that it was not. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that state courts can't do that.

That ruling has obviously stuck around, but Taney's court didn't use that opportunity to declare the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional.

The big one was Dred Scott, a widely derided 7-2 decision which led indirectly to the US Civil War. This ruling held that African Americans, whether enslaved or free, could not be American citizens and had no standing to sue in federal court. Furthermore, it rules that the federal government was not allowed to regulate slavery in federal territories acquired after the creation of the US.

Moral issues aside, this indirectly led to the civil war because up until this point, many people outside the south were willing to allow slavery to exist just so long as their own states didn't allow it. Dred Scott essentially made it impossible for many states or the federal government to outlaw slavery. Now, slavery was an all or nothing issue, so the anti-slavery was strengthened greatly by this.
Prior to Dred Scott, Democratic Party politicians had sought repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and were finally successful in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act. This act permitted each newly admitted state south of the 40th parallel to decide whether to be a slave state or free state. Now, with Dred Scott, the Supreme Court under Taney sought to permit the unhindered expansion of slavery into the territories.

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