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Local laws and freedom(Slavery)

   It is interesting to note that slavery in the U.S. was not legal everywhere. The obvious association is with the south, though slavery was tried early on in the north, and found wanting. In modern times the abolition of slavery is linked with liberalism, but this would not have seemed to have been the case back in the mid eighteen hundreds. The major initiatives for the abolition of slavery came from a Republican President, and the big business and industrial north. The biggest blow to the abolitionists, and the one which almost guarantied that a peaceful end to slavery would not be possible, came from the supreme court in the form of the Dredd Scott decision, which will be addressed later.
    Slavery was an inherited institution in this country. It had existed, as serfdom or indentured servitude, including the transportation of convicts, for generations before America was settled by Europeans. As a free and individualistic society, we had some real problems with the idea of people being owned. This was particularly true in regards to the institution of indentured servitude when applied to Europeans. The white indentured servants resembled, and often dressed, talked, had the same musical tastes, and even the same religious beliefs, as their masters. There was always the uncomfortable nagging in the back of the colonist's minds that "there, but for the grace of God, go I." There had been African indentured servants in the early days of settlement, but there had also been African war captives, sold to white slave traders by the African chiefs. When the demand for slaves went up, but the numbers of captives taken in national and tribal wars did not, the slave traders began to go on slave raids, kidnapping slaves from members of the civilian population. This increase in demand took place for a couple of reasons. There was the noted discomfort of some people towards having their "own kind" kept as slaves, but more importantly, there was a change in attitude, and law in Europe.
    There had been moves toward the abolition of slavery in Europe for some time, and when the institution was ended there, America had no source of whites to draw upon for indentured servitude; there was, however, still Africa. Blacks had always been well represented among the indentured, and the enslaved, but there had always been a large number of white indentured servants too. With the closing of the European slave trade, the institution of slavery would now be exclusivley associated with blacks. This was when the word "nigger", initially being only a descriptive term like the equally innocuous "yankee" and "Indian",  began to take on it's present flavor (it is ironic that future events were to give all three of these terms hateful connotations).  Though there was initially not much of what we today would call racism in the country (all of the settlers tending to be rebels, misfits, adventurers, religious outcasts, and the like), a couple of generations of exclusively black slavery drastically changed that. The changes took place in the white world as well as the black world, and the two races began to have significantly different cultures.
    Indentured servitude among whites was outlawed in America soon after it was ended in Europe, but slavery among blacks continued in the south. In the north, with it's industrial, and somewhat more individualistic culture, slavery was found to be impractical, and distasteful. In the south, with its agrarian culture, and somewhat more feudal outlook, it was found to serve quite well. The Constitution would, at first glance seem to ban any form of slavery, but the slave owners found an easy answer---the Constitution was written to protect and govern men, and blacks were (to the slave owners) obviously not men. This was a case which could not have been made back in the days when white indentured servitude had existed, but in playing with definitions like this, the local laws were excluded from a Constitutional examination. A black slave, if he could get legal representation, would clearly have the law on his side, but since the argument was made that slaves were not people (or at any rate were not citizens) no such representation was ever given. The argument of the slave owners was that giving a slave the legal right to challenge his status would be as ludicrous as giving legal representation and possible emancipation to a horse, cow, or any other animal which was the property of it's owner. So these local laws were allowed to stay on the books  for generations, while the northerners tried to tell themselves that as bad as the situation was in the south, it at least did not affect them in the north. The slave catcher laws, and then the Dredd Scott case were to shatter this illusion.
    It is well documented and, at any rate, should come as no surprise, that many slaves escaped their masters' and fled north where there was no slavery. This began to irritate the slave owners to the extent that they had sent slave catchers up north to bring the fugitives back, and to discourage similar ideas in the rest of their property. The legality of this was challenged by an outraged northern populous, but the slave owners won their case. According to the laws of the day, this was actually the correct legal decision, and should give a hint as to the importance of local laws, and the effect they may have on our freedoms in the nation as a whole.  In the case of the escaped slaves, they had broken no laws in the northern states to which they had fled, but they had broken the laws of the states in which they were owned, and they were answerable for their crimes. The slaves were also legally owned by their masters, so that their leaving was a form of theft (of themselves, true, but theft nonetheless). Finding against the slave catchers would have set a precedent which would have made it legal to commit a crime in one state and then simply cross the border into another to avoid prosecution, law enforcement officials being barred by law from pursuit, and local authorities being prevented from even attempting extradition. Such a precedent would set the stage for the dissolution of the union into a number of small feuding states. As bad as this was to the case of the abolitionists, worse was to come in the decision of the Dredd Scott case.
    Dredd Scott was a black slave, but he was no field hand. This was an educated man who acted as a personal servant to his master, an Army surgeon. The master took a trip up to a free part of Louisiana, and brought the indispensable Dredd Scott along to attend him. One day, Dredd Scott simply walked away, saying that as a black man in a free state (they had not been living in a slave state for over seven years), he was no longer under the thumb of his master. He did not run off, and made no attempt to hide out, as he claimed that no law had been broken by him. He had been ordered by his master to come, and had obeyed, so it could not be said that he had broken any of the laws back in the south. In a free area, the former master had no legal authority to order him around, or to order him back home, so said Dredd Scott. This had to be a difficult one for the supreme court, which was where the case ended up. A number of important issues were tangled together including state's rights, property rights, and the jurisdiction of local law. The Supreme Court eventually decided against Dredd Scott, and compelled him to return to his owner. Once again, according to the law of the land at the time, this was the only decision that could have been made. Taney (the chief justice) added his opinion that "slavery could not be excluded from any territory anywhere. Slaves were property, and according to the Constitution's Fifth Amendment, no one could be deprived of any property, though it be another human being, without due process of law."
    It is a sad fact of life that the courts have only a passing interest in what is right; they render decisions according to what is consistent within the laws as they are written. Judges may hope for just and fair laws, passed by a wise and benevolent legislature, but are limited to abiding by the laws actually on the books when making their rulings. In the case of Dredd Scott, their duty was clear. This was a property case and, as Dredd Scott had no rights as a citizen, and even his status as a human being was in question legally, the only interested party who had any say in the court was his owner. A man's property in a slave state is still a man's property in a free area. Had the owner brought up a wagon and left it on the street overnight, no one would have had the right to take it, as it was still as much his property as it had been back at home. So though the institution of legal slavery did not hold in free areas, the sanctity of private property still did, and Dredd Scott was still owned by his master. Clearly, Dredd Scott was wronged, and I am certain that he was shocked by the verdict. Had the court decided the other way, vast and frightening possibilities would have opened up regarding the unity of the nation, and trade between the states. If property rights are not inviolate throughout the states, then trade, travel, and once again, the integrity of the union, are all threatened. In the worst case, this could mean confiscation of property at state lines, along with tariffs and trade wars between the states.
    The Supreme court chose the lesser of two evils with their decision, and though this ruling helped to keep the union together a bit longer, it held the seeds of war within it. The Supreme Court had given slavery legitimacy throughout the union. It opened up the door for the use of slaves and slave labor in the north, and south both. If a slave owner could bring slaves up north and still retain his authority over them, what would prevent him from opening factories employing slaves in the north, or of running a household with slave servants? In time, perhaps some northerners might wish to purchase some of these newly arrived slaves, and try their hand at being slave owners too. For all practical purposes slavery was now legal throughout the states with no difference between slave state and free state except on paper and in principle. It was obvious, and easily recognizable to anyone with eyes that this situation could not go on. Either the nation would have to outlaw slavery completely, which the southerners would never accept, or slavery would have to be officially recognized as a national institution, something which people in the north would not stand for. Lincoln saw this clearly when he made the famous statement that " a house divided against itself cannot stand".