On March 6, 1857, in the infamous Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Dred Scott, his wife Harriet, and their daughters Eliza and Lizzie had no right to sue for their freedom. Those African Americans who had escaped slavery, those who had been born free, and those accustomed to rights and privileges, including voting and serving on juries in some New England states – these men and women “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” according to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s shameful words.
And yet by March 1865, one hundred and fifty years ago this month, Congress had passed the 13th Amendment, forever banning slavery, as the Union armies marched through the Confederacy. The old racial order was being defeated. But where would a new birth of freedom – inclusive of all those born in the United States as citizens – emerge?
Surprisingly, more than on the battlefields of the South, that birth came in the Civil War West.
Since the very earliest days of the republic the question of national character had been tied up with new western lands. Would they be a space for small farms, worked by families? Or, rather, a place for great plantations worked by slave labor? Americans settled the question on lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase by dividing them between slaveholders and free men. But that compromise covered only the Louisiana Territory, and when the nation acquired the huge Southwest from Mexico in 1848, the question reemerged. Americans briefly tried to settle the struggle between slave owners and free men in the West by letting settlers decide who had rights in the new Territories. When this method failed spectacularly, the Dred Scott decision offered an abhorrently simple system – rights for whites, no rights for others.
Throughout the West, Spanish speakers from every background, rich and poor, were suddenly unsure of their status. Chinese miners were hounded and restricted from access to the courts to protect themselves. Free state legislatures passed laws to block free African Americans from moving to their states, in an effort to keep their populations uniformly white. Even before the Civil War, ministers and journalists, among others, had fought these efforts to define citizenship in racial terms, and resisted the claims of white superiority.
Then, during and after the war, in the West events challenged the definition of citizenship offered by the Dred Scott decision, as my research, along with that of Virginia Scharff, Diane Mutti Burke, Gregory Downs, and others, demonstrates. For African Americans, the war also opened up opportunities to fight for rights on and off the battlefield: In 1862, the First Colored Kansas Infantry was the first black regiment to see combat, challenging accusations that African Americans would be unreliable soldiers and suggesting that they might make good citizens. Later, reading lessons that began around a U.S. Colored Troops campfire in Texas led to the establishment of Lincoln University in Missouri.
The Reconstruction Amendments ended slavery and expanded rights to African American men, and they encouraged even greater expansions: In 1869, officials in Wyoming Territory reacted to the passage of the 14th Amendment – guaranteeing the rights of national citizenship to every man born in the United States, regardless of race – by enfranchising women and further extending the promise of equal citizenship rights. Then, in 1870, Congress passed the first naturalization law to include “aliens of African nativity and…persons of African descent,” welcoming the children of former fugitive slaves as U.S. citizens. In Texas, debates among white Texan leaders turned the Reconstruction government away from providing rights for ex-slaves, and on to what restitutions would be made to former Confederates.
But, during the Civil War and Reconstruction, citizenship rights could also be suspended, and in the West they were outright denied to certain groups. After President Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus rights in Maryland early in the war, the greatest deprivation of rights by the Union was General Order #11, the 1864 effort by General Thomas Ewing to clear four western Missouri counties of all Confederate sympathizers – outraging white men who claimed their rights as citizens had been violated, and who recognized they were no longer calling the shots. Even though the order was withdrawn, it augured that postwar citizenship might not reflect the principles of the Dred Scott decision.
Fighting against the Confederacy was no guarantee of rights: In Indian Territory in 1865, Cherokees and other American Indians who had sided with the Union were devastated to find themselves punished alongside those American Indian nations who had fought for the South. In the 1870 naturalization law, Congress rejected creating a path to citizenship for others, most notably Asian immigrants. In 1882, after the completion of three transcontinental railroads, Congress tightened restrictions on Chinese workers, to prevent them from becoming citizens or having American children. In the greatest irony, American Indians would have to wait until 1924 to be granted citizenship in the United States.
The shape of U.S. citizenship as we know it has been tested and restricted, challenged and expanded, in the West. Shaped by wars and economics, religion and politics, the process continues today. While Dred Scott died in 1858, his rights still denied, Harriet Scott lived until 1876, long enough to see the changes effected by the Civil War and the Reconstruction amendments. Their youngest daughter, Lizzie, was born in St. Louis in 1855, and hid away in the aftermath of the Dred Scott decision. Living quietly with family members, the curtains drawn, she died at the age of 99 in 1954, having witnessed the nation’s descent into Jim Crow and the responses of the modern civil rights movement, with the overthrow of restrictive housing covenants and interracial marriage in California in 1947 and 1948, and nationwide in the years that followed.
While we condemn the Dred Scott decision, Scott’s willingness to bring suit against his owner launched the crucial era for defining American citizenship in the West and throughout the nation.