Moving Toward Equality Under Law

The Constitution failed to express the ideal of equality found in the Declaration of Independence. Intent on forming a new system of government, the framers of the Constitution basically left slavery for future generations to deal with. At the time, many believed that slavery would simply fade away. It didn’t. And the issue of slavery increasingly divided the nation.


Dred Scott sued in federal court seeking his freedom. His case reached the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in a notorious decision that helped spark the Civil War. (Wikimedia Commons)

As new states entered the union, Congress tried to maintain a balance. For each new slave state, it admitted a free state. When Missouri petitioned to join the union as a slave state in 1819, the balance stood at 11 each — slave and free. The North objected to upsetting the balance and to spreading slavery outside the South. This opened a dispute over slavery that rocked the nation. Finally, in 1820 Congress adopted the Missouri Compromise. Missouri entered the nation as a slave state. In return, Maine, which had been part of Massachusetts, entered as a free state. It was also agreed that, except for Missouri, no new slave states would be formed out of any part of the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri’s southern border. This compromise kept Congress quiet on the slavery question for 30 years.

But the nation itself kept growing more divided on the issue. In the North, anti-slavery societies sprouted. In time, a strong abolitionist movement developed, demanding an end to slavery. Abolitionist presses churned out anti-slavery literature. Thousands of slaves escaped to freedom through the Underground Railway, a secret network of people and safe houses that guided slaves to the North. In addition to running away, slaves often resisted by sabotaging work, pretending to be ill, committing crimes, and even openly rebelling on rare occasions.

Southern states responded by tightening their control over slaves. They banned anti-slavery literature. They passed even harsher “slave codes,” laws regulating slaves. They grew especially ruthless following a slave uprising led by Nat Turner in 1831.

By 1850, the nation had grown to 30 states — balanced at 15 slave and 15 free. The South recognized that if slavery were to survive, it would have to expand into the West. The Compromise of 1850 allowed California to be admitted as a free state. But in 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This declared that voters in each new state would decide whether their state allowed or prohibited slavery. The act overturned the Missouri Compromise, which had restricted slavery to the South. It also caused a mini-Civil War in Kansas as pro- and anti-slavery settlers flooded the state and took to arms.

The presidential election of 1856 took place amid this turmoil. After a bitterly contested campaign, a Southern Democrat beat a contender from the newly formed Republican Party. Committed to stopping the spread of slavery, the Republicans garnered their support from the North.

As tensions mounted, a U.S. Supreme Court decision inflamed the nation. The highest court in the land, the Supreme Court decides cases appealed to it from lower courts. It determines what the Constitution and other federal laws mean. Its decisions can actually overturn laws if they conflict with the Constitution. In 1857, the Supreme Court heard the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Scott was a slave whose master had taken him to live for several years in Illinois, a free state, and Wisconsin, a free territory, before bringing him back to Missouri. On Scott’s return, he sued in Missouri courts for his freedom. He argued that under state law a slave who resided in a free state was entitled to freedom under the principle of “once free, always free.” The trial court agreed, but on appeal the Missouri Supreme Court made a highly questionable ruling against Scott. Scott then sued for his freedom in federal court. His case ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court ruled 7–2 against Scott. Chief Justice Roger Taney, a strong believer in slavery, wrote the opinion of the court. He stated that the Missouri Supreme Court — not the U.S. Supreme Court — determined Missouri law, and according to that court, Scott was a slave. If Taney had stopped there, the decision would have been unremarkable. But he said much more. He denied that Scott had a right to sue in federal court because no African American — free or slave — was a U.S. citizen. Further, Taney’s opinion ruled that Scott had never been free, because the federal government did not have the power to outlaw slavery. The opinion thus concluded that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. In one decision, Taney tried to settle all the questions of slavery. But the decision, widely considered one of the worst Supreme Court decisions ever, left no room for compromise and made conflict over the issue of slavery almost inevitable.

When Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860, most Southern states tried to secede from the Union and soon the Civil War began. As the bloody war ground on, Lincoln in 1863 issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the rebelling states. It didn’t end slavery in the few slave states that remained loyal to the Union. But it gave power to the abolitionists’ belief that the war should end slavery, and it furnished Union soldiers with a noble cause to fight for. At the war’s end, three new amendments were added to the Constitution. As a condition of readmittance, the Southern states had to agree to ratify each amendment.

These amendments at long last wrote into the Constitution the ideals of equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. (This is the only place in the Constitution where slavery is mentioned.) The 14th Amendment made everyone born in the United States a citizen. It also banned states from limiting the rights of citizens, from denying people equal protection under the law, and from depriving them “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The 15th Amendment outlawed denying anyone the right to vote on the grounds of race or color.

These amendments expressed the ideals of equality, but it would be along time before the ideals became real.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What were the Civil War amendments? What methods did the South use to get around them?
  2. What is the role of the U.S. Supreme Court?
  3. If the Supreme Court had decided Dred Scott v. Sandford in Scott’s favor, do you think the decision would have been enforced? Why or why not? When making a decision, do you think the Supreme Court should consider whether it will be enforced? Explain.  

For Further Reading

Sitkoff, Harvard. The Struggle for Black Equality. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 2008.

Nelson, Bruce. Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 2001.


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