Courtside Episode 6 with Heather Cox Richardson
A fascinating discussion about Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) and the start of the Civil War
Heather Cox Richardson is one of the most brilliant and accessible historians of our time. Her newsletter, Letters from an American, has over 1.1 million subscribers, and for good reason. And you’ll see it here — she is discussing perhaps the most important case the Supreme Court has ever decided, Dred Scott. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Court’s decision sparked the Civil War.
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There is so much difficult history to master to understand the case, and I’ve never heard it better explained than here. I mean, I’ve taught Dred Scott 20 times, but never with the incisive historical background she provides just in the first few minutes of the podcast. Many people gloss over the decision — it’s a bit complicated and it’s SO old. But it’s really important, and Prof. Richardson helps break it down into something absolutely understandable.
Dred Scott v. Sandford occupies a unique place in the annals of American history — that of the Supreme Court’s worst decision. Ever. Disgracing the very idea of democracy, the 1857 ruling stripped freed slaves of citizenship, invalidated the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and officially defined slaves as “property” under the Fifth Amendment. While the decision is primarily known for its racial animus, constitutional hogwash, and egregious holdings, it also had the adverse effect of splitting the court. Indeed, in a sign of just how divisive Dred Scott was, nine separate opinions were issued — one by each justice. We also cover the reactions to the decision, including the remarkable views of Frederick Douglass.
And in many ways, the Court’s deep schism reflected a broader reality; Dred Scott ripped apart an already-divided country, pushing the United States towards a civil war that seemed all the more imminent with each passing day. I can’t wait for you to listen to this.
This is a 4 pager description of the decision
This is an abridged 20 page version of the decision
This is the full decision: