“In the solitude of my spirit, I see clouds of dust raised on the highways of the South; I see bleeding footsteps; I hear the doleful wail of fettered humanity, on the way to the slave-markets, where the victims are to be sold like horses, sheep, and swine, knocked off to the highest bidder. There I see the tenderest ties ruthlessly broken, to gratify the lust, caprice and rapacity of the buyers and sellers of men. My soul sickens at the sight.”
-- Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist
“I think by the end of his life Lincoln had certainly accepted the idea of black citizenship. In fact, in 1862 his Attorney General, Edward Bates, issues a ruling basically saying: The Supreme Court was wrong. Free black people -- not slaves -- are citizens. Absolutely, we’re going to recognize all free black people as citizens of the United States. And the Supreme Court just made a big mistake there, and we don’t have to listen to it.”
-- Eric Foner,Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Columbia University historian
It's often described as the worst decision ever handed down by the U-S Supreme Court. It was the only time in American history when a justice resigned from the Court in apparent disgust at a ruling by his colleagues. It prompted numerous proposals that the Supreme Court be abolished. And it greatly inflamed America in the tense period leading up to the Civil War.
How could a nation founded on a Declaration that "all men are created equal" permit slavery? Nowhere was this contradiction more stark than in federal courts before the nation erupted into Civil War. In this documentary, we consider several historical flashpoints.
In one case, historians, legal scholars and actors re-create the fugitive slave trial of Anthony Burns, a teenager born as a slave in Virginia. After escaping on a boat to Boston, he was apprehended and forced into federal court where under the Fugitive Slave Act he could be ordered back to slavery. The federal court proceedings that followed his arrest provoked the largest abolitionist protest the nation had ever seen. In the end, Burns, then 20 years old, was marched through the city in chains and deposited on a boat, which would take him back to cruel punishment as a slave. The judge, Edward Loring, later faced strong ostracism and was eventually removed from his other post as a state judge. In the second segment, we look in-depth at the most controversial ruling in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court -- the Dred Scott case. In that decision, the Chief Justice ruled that black people have "no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Shortly afterward, a fellow justice resigned in disgust from the Supreme Court. We hear the whole amazing saga in a lengthy dialogue with Eric Foner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of history at Columbia University. We examine how these cases aggravated national tensions before the Civil War, stirred up abolitionist sentiment and harmed the legitimacy of the courts.
Total time: 1 hour