The history of Dred Scott is as fascinating as it is frustrating. The man was born into slavery at the turn of the 19th century and travelled with his owners across the settled country, from Alabama to Missouri to Illinois to present day Minnesota (Wisconsin Territory at the time). His owner was a US Army Surgeon who, after being assigned to a military post in 1837 (this was during the Seminole War), left Scott in Wisconsin Territory to be leased out to other slave owners for work.
The Territory, it should be noted, was “free” and slavery was prohibited.
Scott attempted to secure his freedom in multiple ways as a result, but none were successful. Attempts to persuade his owners availed him nothing, as did his efforts to buy his own freedom. In the end, he found one last recourse: He sued his master in state (Missouri) court. It’s here in the history of Dred Scott where my interest was sparked yesterday. I was watching a totally unrelated thing on YouTube and the speaker mentioned how Dred Scott sued his master in his attempt to win freedom. Now, I knew of Dred Scott and the landmark Supreme Court ruling that concerned him, but I had forgotten that one little detail. In fact, it’s a detail many people seem to take for granted…
The slave sued his master!
How does a person even pull that off?! How does someone who is property accomplish all that is necessary to officially file a lawsuit? He’d have to secure a lawyer, sign the necessary documents, pay the required fees, etc. When the show I was watching mentioned that, it was only in passing but I had to stop and ask myself “how’d he pull that off?” Do you know? I’ll tell you.
Lights in unrelenting darkness.
All along the borders between slave states and free states, abolitionists were scattered, looking for runaway slaves, looking for masters violating the law, looking for people they might help. There’s no telling how many thousands of slaves crossed their path for whom they could do nothing. I can’t imagine how frustrating and heartbreaking that had to be. But then, every once in a while, a situation would arise where they could finally do some good. It was abolitionist lawyers, who helped Scott file his lawsuit. By all accounts it should have been a slam dunk case. But the initial ruling went against him. Naturally, he appealed, and the case made its way up to the US Supreme Court.
They ruled 7-2 against him.
Their justification was that the rights of the Constitution did not extend to “negro people.” It was a remarkable bit of willful ignorance on the part of the Court, since the rights of the Constitution were first enumerated in the declaration of independence, which declares all men endowed by their Creator with rights. Having lost the case, Scott returned to slave life but, a short while later was bought and freed by his owners. He died after a year of freedom, three years before the outbreak of Civil War.
What’s the (spiritual) point?
Scott was aided in his quest for freedom by abolitionist lawyers and advocates who scattered along the borders between slave and free states. Those men and women sparked a light of freedom in a very dark place, and even after losing the Supreme Court fight to free Scott, they went back to work and continued shining their light. One of Scott’s lawyers went on to become a founding member of the Republican Party, which began in the same free Wisconsin area where Scott was taken years before. Lincoln came next, and emancipation followed.
I thought about that the parallels of that this morning, how the call of Christ is to be a light in darkness (Matthew 5:16), and how we should not expect to single-handedly turn the dark world bright; in fact we should expect the world to grow darker still (2 Timothy 3:13). Do we give up? No. We keep shining. We may not be able to save everyone, but we might save someone. We might fail to reach one over here, but succeed in helping someone else over there, and who knows what good may come as a result (Esther 4:14).