The Political Economy of Blackness: Citizenship, Corporations, and Race in Dred Scott

By Allen, Austin | Civil War History, September 2004 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Political Economy of Blackness: Citizenship, Corporations, and Race in Dred Scott


Allen, Austin, Civil War History


On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney lashed out against the antislavery movement and simultaneously reaffirmed his court's support for the emerging corporate order. He did both in Dred Scott v. Sandford when he declared, accurately, that the Constitution recognized no black person as a citizen of the United States. The Dred Scott case, which also found that the federal government possessed no authority to limit the expansion of slavery into the territories, has long invoked contempt. As the antislavery lawyer John Appleton wrote shortly after the decision, "that the law has been disregarded or rather trampled under foot few will doubt." (1) Appleton's perception of a "mutilation of fact [and] subversion of the law" in Dred Scott anticipated the stance that underpins recent investigations into the citizenship question, which scholars now realize raised fundamental questions concerning race relations within American society. (2) By law, citizenship signified a legal relationship in which purportedly free individuals gave their allegiance to a sovereign community in exchange for the protection of a shifting bundle of rights that varied by race, gender, and jurisdiction. (3) According to Taney, however, no such relationship existed between the federal citizenry and free blacks: "They are not included and were not intended to be included." To the contrary, they were "considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race ... and had no rights or privileges but such as those ... the Government might choose to grant them." (4) The chief justice supported his contentions with a lengthy historical argument that Appleton, among others, described as "falsified."

The most striking aspect of Taney's argument involved not so much what he said but rather the excessive manner in which he said it. The assertion that the constitutional order existed for white people only was hardly a novel stance. Taney expressed a belief--widely held at all levels of society and throughout every region of the Union--that the perceived inherent inferiority of black people rendered them unfit for citizenship. Taney himself began working out his thoughts on the subject as early as 1832, when, as Andrew Jackson's attorney general, he defended South Carolina's policy of imprisoning every free black sailor that entered the state. (5) Despite its widespread character, the ideology of white superiority became increasingly contested in the antebellum period. Even in the Jacksonian South, as Lacy K. Ford has argued, the question of citizenship for free blacks remained open and deeply contentious; the debate was even more intense in the North and West. (6) Taney's analysis in Dred Scott was sophisticated enough to handle the resulting ambiguity and in fact represented an accurate reading of American law and history. Even so, the chief justice went out of his way to stress what he saw as the inferiority of African Americans before the law and within society. He could have presented the substance of his argument in a paragraph or two--perhaps in five pages if he wanted to be thorough. Instead, he allotted more space (twenty-four pages) to the citizenship question than he did to any other, including the explosive territorial issue (twenty-one pages). In those two dozen pages A. Leon Higginbotham counted twenty-one separate references to either black inferiority or white superiority. (7)

Behind the excessive display lay a pro-Southern political agenda. Taney's opinion, according to historian Don E. Fehrenbacher, expressed "the southern mood--fearful, angry, and defiant--in the late stages of a national crisis," and it launched "a sweeping counterattack on the antislavery movement." (8) This interpretation contains merit. The Taney Court's members, with a few exceptions, revealed little patience for antislavery legal arguments, and they had no qualms about undercutting antislavery litigation strategies.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Political Economy of Blackness: Citizenship, Corporations, and Race in Dred Scott
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?