The name of Josiah Hensley may not be well known in today’s school classrooms, but for a Connecticut-born teacher living in Brunswick, Maine in 1850, the narrative he composed inspired her to write a novel destined to become what some scholars still call the most important piece of American literature ever published.
The budding author was named Harriet Beecher Stowe, the educated wife of a professor at Bowdoin College, and she called her novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. A passionate abolitionist, Stowe had been captivated by the revelations depicting life on a Maryland plantation as related by a former slave, Josiah Hensley, who had escaped to Canada. For a largely-naïve northern public, the book struck an immediate chord and within a few months, 300,000 copies were being shared by American readers, to say nothing of the dramatic stage plays and traveling road shows based on its pages.
As much as any other single event, the publication of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” further fueled the abolition movement in the North while infuriating the slave-holding South. Divisions in the nation’s governing bodies became even more strained, and the road toward separation and Civil War more clearly marked.
If there was a “final blow” to any possibility of resolution, it came in the form of the U.S. Supreme Court’s activism in the most controversial decision in all of the high court’s history; and here we run into two more important names: Roger Tanay (pronounced Tau’nee), and Dred Scott.
Roger Taney was born to a slave-holding Maryland family, rising to make a name for himself both as a successful lawyer and politician. Breaking with the Federalists over the War of 1812, he became a prominent Democrat and a vocal advocate for slavery and for states’ rights. He endeared himself to Andrew Jackson, for whom he carried the torch even in the face of extreme opposition. He served the Jackson administration as U.S. Attorney General, and briefly, as Secretary of War. When first nominated for a Supreme Court Justiceship, he failed to win support from Congress, but when Chief Justice John Marshal died, he gained approval to replace him after much wrangling in Congress where he was not exactly revered.
Dred Scott was a black slave who long served a military master, Major John Emerson, who took Scott with him from slave-holding Missouri to stations in Illinois and then to the Wisconsin Territory, both “free” entities, over a period of many years of Federal service. Scott had even been permitted to marry. Upon their return to the South, and the death of the Major, Dred Scott was encouraged by friends to petition for his freedom, on the grounds that he had now lived for many years in “free territory”. Emerson’s widow refused, and the petition went to the courts, finally finding its way to the highest court of the land in 1857 as DRED SCOTT v SANDFORD. (The widow’s business and legal affairs were managed by her brother, John F.A. Sandford.)
Under heavy pressure from ardently pro-slavery U.S. President James Buchanan, Judge Taney wrote the court’s final opinion which was so controversial – even among the Associate Justices – that one of the dissenters retired from the high court in utter disgust. Taney said in essence that since the founding of the Republic, Negroes had never been, and never would be citizens, and therefore Dred Scott had no standing to even have his case heard. Period!
But Taney did not stop there. The Taney court went on to say that Congress did not have the power to outlaw slavery in the new territories, or anywhere else for that matter, thereby overturning the Missouri Compromise and every other Act defining the long-standing boundaries between slave and “free” states. Not only did the decision sustain the notion that slaves were the private property of their owners, but that anyone attempting to interfere with that right would be subject to penalty under the law. By extension, black residents of the northern states who had been free voting citizens since the earliest days of nationhood had been redefined as aliens of a lower order, and states in which slavery had long been outlawed now found themselves challenged by federal doctrine.
The 1860 census found that of 8 million residents of the eleven southern states which were about to leave the Union, 4 million – fully one half – were black slaves, and in states such as South Carolina and Mississippi, the slave population actually outnumbered free whites.
After Uncle Tom and Dred Scott, only the formal secession of the Confederate states and the cannons facing Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor remained to ignite the fuse which would bring a long bloody war to America.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, a teacher at the Hartford Female Academy, crafted her sentimental novel about life on a Maryland slave plantation to focus public awareness
on the horrors of slave life. Her book became the second most read book of the 19th century, next only to the Bible.
Roger Taney (1777 – 1864), shown in an 1848 daguerreotype by famed Civil War era photographer Mathew Brady, became the fifth Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court,
where he presided over the history-making Dred Scott decision. He was described unkindly by critics as a “supple, cringing tool of Jacksonian power”.