The Supreme Court and Slavery

The Supreme Court and Slavery

The controversy over slavery that erupted in the 19th Century traced back to  sectional interests that were pitted against one another early in the nation’s history.  Delegates to the Constitutional Convention were forced to make major compromises on representation, taxation and the importation of slaves in an attempt to reconcile the divergent economic and social interests that had developed throughout the colonial period and after the Revolution.  The slavery compromises were among the most significant.

The three-fifths compromise in Article I, section, 2, dealt with representation and taxation.  It provided that three-fifths “of all other Persons” would be counted when apportioning congressional representation in the House of Representatives and for levying direct taxes.  That compromise meant that slave-holding states would not have as much representation in the House as their population otherwise would have permitted had each slave been counted as a whole person, but more representation in Congress than abolitionists had hoped they would have.  Article I, section 9, barred Congress from prohibiting the “importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit” until 1808.  That compromise allowed the slave trade to continue, but limited its likely duration.  Article I, section 8, authorized Congress to regulate commerce among the several states, but Article I, section 9, prohibited it from imposing taxes or duties on articles exported from any state.  Without that provision, Congress might have imposed indirect taxes on products produced by the labor of enslaved persons, thereby taxing the institution out of existence.  

A Growing Divide

By 1808, the first year that Congress had authority to ban the importation of slaves, most northern states had enacted legislation abolishing the institution.  The population of enslaved persons in the early 19th century was almost four million.  With the children of those persons themselves being enslaved, the international trade was not as significant as it once had been. It was thus possible for Congress to forge a coalition to outlaw the slave trade at its first opportunity, and it did so.  However, the ban did little to heal the growing national divide over slavery and whether it should be allowed to expand into new territories and states.  

The Missouri Compromise

In 1817, Missouri petitioned Congress to enter the union as a slave state.  At that time, the country had 11 free states and 11 slave states.  If Missouri entered the union as a slave state, the balance in the Senate would be lost.  In the bitter debates that followed Missouri’s petition, fundamental yet still unresolved questions about the Constitution were exposed.  In 1789, for example, states had been given the opportunity to decide for themselves whether to enter the union as slave or free.   Should new states be treated differently from original states?  What of the moral issues associated with slavery and its blatant contradiction of the principle of human equality on which the country was founded?   Did the Constitution protect the institution of slavery or contain mechanisms for its gradual abolition?  Which level of government should have the final say over issues involving slavery—the national government or the states?

The debates over the admission of Missouri led to the Missouri Compromise, finalized in 1821.  Missouri was admitted as a slave state, but the district of Maine, an area that had wanted to be separated from Massachusetts, would be admitted as a free state.  From then on, the compromise provided that for each new state that was admitted into the Union as a free state, a slave state would be admitted as well.  Slavery also was prohibited in the territory north of 36 degrees, 30 minutes latitude (the line along the southern boundary of Missouri and Kentucky).    

The Missouri Compromise held longer than many predicted it could, yet it proved unworkable in the face of rapid western expansion and growing animosity between northerners and southerners. Antislavery sentiment grew considerably during the 1830s, often couched in terms of natural rights and Christian morality.  

The Organic Act of 1850

In 1850, Congress agreed to another compromise, this one to resolve the question of slavery in the territory gained in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.  The compromise was actually a set of five statutes that (1) admitted California as a free state, (2) created the Utah and New Mexico territories with the question of slavery in each to be determined by popular sovereignty, (3) settled a boundary dispute between Texas and New Mexico in favor of Texas, (4) ended the slave trade in Washington, D.C (but retained slavery there), and (5) made it easier for slaveholders to recover fugitive slaves.  

One of the five statutes, the Organic Act of 1850 that created the Utah and New Mexico territories, also contained a provision that made it easier for parties to advance slavery questions to the Supreme Court.  The section that created courts for the new territories gave litigants the right to take appeals from the top territorial court to the United States Supreme Court in civil cases in which the amount in controversy exceeded $1,000.  However, in cases involving title to enslaved persons, “appeals shall be allowed and decided by the said Supreme Court, without regard to the value of the matter, property, or title in controversy. . .”   (Emphasis added)  In other words, the monetary restrictions that limited the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction in all other civil cases did not limit its jurisdiction to decide questions involving the ownership of enslaved persons.  

The Supreme Court already had the power to review the decisions of top state courts under Section 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789.  The Organic Act of 1850 gave litigants an additional way to appeal slavery questions to the Supreme Court.