I continued to focus my research this week on the Dred Scott decision. Last week, I posted several primary sources from newspapers that highlighted the Northern view of the Dred Scott decision as part of a slave power conspiracy. Those articles, which reported the language of Northern politicians, clearly expressed their fears that the South would use the decision to take control of the federal government.
The primary sources that I posted this week, however, provide different takes on the Dred Scott decision. One source was an editorial from Harper’s Weekly, published shortly after the Supreme Court reached its decision. Although Harper’s was a magazine published in New York, the tone in this editorial was noticeably different from last week’s primary sources taken from the New York Daily Times. Rather than stoking the fires of Northern fear, as the articles in the Times clearly did, the editorial in Harper’s Weekly clearly sought to downplay the Supreme Court’s decision. To point to what they saw as largely hypocritical reactions to the decision, the editorial begins by describing the situation in the country: “We have among us a small representation of a tropical race of human beings, marked off from us by the unmistakable line of color, if by nothing else, and over whom we daily arrogate to ourselves of the Caucasian stock a complete and absolute superiority.” The editorial argues that with such a system in place, it is out of place for such negative reactions to the Dred Scott decision when so many already view (and treat) blacks in such an inferior way. In other words, the editors seem to be arguing that the decision only seems to be in line with how blacks were viewed and treated.
The editorial goes on to downplay the decision even further by stating that, in their opinion, it did not seem that the ruling could really have any substantial effects going forward on the political/legal issues surrounding the institution of slavery. They reach the conclusion that: “The only result, therefore, that we can arrive at is, that however repugnant the Dred Scott decision may be to the feelings of a portion of the Northern States, it can have no practical effects injurious to our tranquillity, or to our institutions. The subject of slavery will be left to be decided, as it ultimately must be, by the laws which govern labor and production.” Thus, such a position stands in clear opposition to the Northern publications that I posted last week that argue the very opposite.
Also included in my research this week was another piece published in the New York Times. In this case, the Times published a lengthy letter written by a Southern lawyer from Mississippi who was offering his legal take on the Dred Scott decision. Published in October 1859, more than two years after the Harper’s Weekly editorial, this individual takes the position that the ruling: “so far as the decision says anything on the subject of the power of Congress, its clear implication is a denial to that body of any power to legislate at all, either pro or con., in relation to Slavery in the Territories.” As he saw it, the decision served only to imply that Congress had no power to rule either way on the issue of slavery in the territories—they could neither prohibit nor permit it. Seeing it any other way, he argues, would be a “perversion of [Taney’s] ideas or of his language. (Yet, his opinion of Taney is far from neutral, describing him as “that great man… too good a lawyer and too able a Judge.”)
That the Times chose to publish this letter in full seems to loop back to the positions they took in the articles posted last week. Here readers are presented with a Southerner who, at first glance, seems to be downplaying the Court’s decision; yet, following his argument closely reveals that while Congress did not have the power to permit slavery, they equally did not have the power to prevent it from expanding—something that might feed into Northern fears.
Finally, I should also briefly note that my research this week also pointed me to a secondary source that discusses how slavery was reported in a variety of Baltimore newspapers. The article’s abstract explains that the Dred Scott decision and John Brown’s raid are two specific events that it seeks to highlight in how they affected newspaper coverage on the issue. I have requested access to this article, and am hopeful that it will provide some useful examples to add to my research which has thus far focused on examples published primarily in New York.