The Dred Scott Case Said Blacks Had No Rights the “White Man Was Bound to Respect.” But in the West Things Turned Out Differently.

Historians/History
tags: Civil War, Dred Scott



Adam Arenson is an associate professor of history at Manhattan College and co-editor of the new volume “Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States,” (University of California Press). The exhibition “Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West” opens at the Autry National Center on April 23 and runs through the rest of 2015.


On March 6, 1857, in the infamous Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that African Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” St. Louisans Dred, Harriet, Eliza and Lizzie Scott would stay slaves.

And yet, by March 1865, Congress had passed the 13th Amendment, forever banning slavery, as Union armies marched through the Confederacy. Surprisingly, the shape of the freedom that followed emerged more in the Civil War West than from the battlefields of the South.

Most people ignore the West during the Civil War. Yet the conflict engulfed Missouri, Kansas and Indian Territory (today’s Oklahoma); it spilled over the borders into British Columbia and Mexico. The Confederacy had high hopes for an invasion of New Mexico, as well as the capture of California; the mechanics of surrender were most urgent in Texas.

Since the very earliest days of the republic, the question of slavery had been tied up with new western lands: banned in the Northwest Territory in 1787; welcomed in the Southwest Territory. The Missouri Compromise split the Louisiana Purchase; slaveholding Texas joined alongside free Oregon. But in 1848 the parallels broke down—the arid Southwest, the fertile lands of California, and the international crowds in the gold fields seemed to require a new system. After a brief try at popular sovereignty, the Dred Scott decision offered an abhorrently simple system—rights for whites, no rights for others.

Throughout the West, Spanish speakers of every hue were suddenly unsure of their status. Chinese miners were hounded, and states passed laws to block free African Americans from moving there. Even before the Civil War, ministers and journalists, among others, fought these efforts to define citizenship in racial terms, and resisted the claims of white superiority.

But in the Civil War West, events challenged the narrow definition of citizenship:

• In 1862, the First Colored Kansas Infantry was the first black regiment to see combat, challenging accusations that African Americans would be unreliable soldiers.

• In Missouri in 1864, Union General Thomas Ewing cleared four western Missouri counties of all Confederate sympathizers, outraging civilians who claimed their rights were violated, and earning a reprimand from his superiors.

• In Indian Territory in June 1865, Cherokee leader Stand Watie became the last Confederate general to surrender, while Cherokees and other American Indians who had sided with the Union were devastated to find themselves punished alongside former rebels.

• In Texas, lessons that were started around a U.S. Colored Troops campfire led to the establishment of Lincoln University in Missouri, while debates among white Texan leaders were essential to the reconstruction of rights for former Confederates.

• In 1869, officials in Wyoming Territory reacted to the passage of the 14th Amendment—guaranteeing the rights of national citizenship to every man born in the United States, regardless of race—by enfranchising women and further extending the promise of equal citizenship rights.

• In 1870, Congress passed the first naturalization law to include "aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent,” welcoming the children of former fugitive slaves as U.S. citizens—but rejecting a naturalization path for others, most notably Asians.

• In 1883, after the completion of three transcontinental railroads, restrictions were tightened on Chinese workers, to prevent them from becoming citizens or having American children.

• In the greatest irony, American Indians would have to wait until 1924 to be granted citizenship in the United States.

The shape of U.S. citizenship as we know it has been tested and restricted, challenged and expanded, in the West. While Dred Scott died in 1858, his rights still denied, Harriet Scott lived until 1876, long enough to see the changes effected by the Civil War and the Reconstruction amendments. Their youngest daughter, Lizzie, was born in St. Louis in 1855, and hid away in the aftermath of the Dred Scott decision. Living quietly with family members, the curtains drawn, she died at the age of 99 in 1954, having witnessed the descent into Jim Crow and the responses of the modern civil rights movement. On this anniversary of the Dred Scott decision, the Scott family provides us a history to celebrate an expanded citizenship to cherish, in the West and throughout the nation.



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