On this 161st anniversary of the Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford to deny American citizenship to any black person, whether slave or free, the mainstream media have uniformly overlooked a key feature of that grave miscarriage of justice: the decision was rendered in large part to prevent blacks from owning guns. Politico correctly observes that Dred Scott is “widely regarded as one of the Supreme Court’s worst decisions” and “an egregious example of seeking to impose a judicial solution to a political problem,” but it fails to articulate the civil rights central to that political problem.
The Dred Scott decision invalidated the Missouri Compromise of 1820, subsequently permitting slavery in every federal territory. Chief Justice Roger Taney went further to declare blacks “an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Taney recognized the ultimate contradiction at the heart of American slavery: if the human dignity described in the Declaration of Independence rests upon natural rights, then those rights are natural to black people as well as white, or they are not. If blacks possess natural rights, then slavery is an unnatural and intolerable evil; if they lack natural rights, blacks simply never can become American citizens, be they born slave or free.
Taney’s decision may rank among the worst in Supreme Court history, but it threw into stark relief the social problem that within eight years would send 600,000 American men to their graves to resolve. Citizenship, Taney knew, “would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognised as citizens in any one State of the Union, the right … to keep and carry arms wherever they went … endangering the peace and safety of the State.” The Civil War resolved that dispute. Democrats, displeased by the war’s conclusion, spent the next century attempting to deprive freed men of their dearly won, constitutionally protected civil rights in part by enacting and expanding the nation’s first gun control laws. These regulations aimed specifically to disarm liberated blacks, who knew too well the urgency of the Second Amendment.
Would-be tyrants crop up in every age to deny the natural rights of man. Fortunately Americans still possess the means to put them down.