Mike Huckabee Hucks Up History

Former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee decided this week that he was a historian by declaring that the Dred Scott decision remains the law of the land.

Really. As he put it …

“the Dred Scott decision of 1857 still remains to this day the law of the land which says that black people aren’t fully human. Does anybody still follow the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision?”

This is so bad on so many levels that it makes Huckabee sound like Connie Chastain.

First, the Dred Scott decision actually makes no such claim. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s opinion points in a somewhat different direction. He asserted that it was commonly believed that African Americans were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” That’s rather repulsive, but it does not deny blacks humanity. It simply denies them any meaningful rights or any claim to equality.

Second, Huckabee seems to have overlooked that the key to Taney’s ruling was that blacks could not be citizens of the United States. As the chief justice asked, “Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen?”

To this question Taney answered with a resounding no. “We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.”

Eleven years later, the Fourteenth Amendment changed all that. As Section One declares, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

You would think that given all the recent attention given Section One that Huckabee would at least read it. But that may be asking too much. After all, the Constitution is the law of the land, and presidents take an oath to uphold it. But then we’ve already seen that the former governor thinks it’s okay to ignore that document, which doesn’t speak well for his candidacy.

Coming as it did on the heels of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment established national citizenship. It was soon followed by the Fifteenth Amendment, setting aside race, color, or previous condition of servitude as a barrier to voting. In proclaiming the ratification of that amendment on March 30, 1870, Ulysses S. Grant remarked: “A measure which makes at once 4,000,000 people voters who were heretofore declared by the highest tribunal in the land not citizens of the United States, nor eligible to become so (with the assertion that ‘at the time of the Declaration of Independence the opinion was fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race, regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, that black men had no rights which the white man was bound to respect’), is indeed a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free Government to the present day.”

Grant understood something that Mike Huckabee does not.

And now you know a little more about the Dred Scott decision … and much more than does Mike Huckabee.


24 thoughts on “Mike Huckabee Hucks Up History

  1. Mark September 10, 2015 / 10:47 pm

    I’ve never liked Huckabee in any way. I always think I’m listening to a smarmy salesman who is managing his face when he talks for maximum effect. But I don’t think he’s stupid, and I suspect “still the law of the land” isn’t what he meant to say.

    But Brooks what really puzzles me is that you seem to be saying that declaring blacks “beings of an inferior order” does not deny that blacks are human. I think it clearly does. That was the whole point of the tenets of biological racism. To create an artificial class of subhuman. All for the purpose of justifying denying them citizenship. Denying citizenship is the intended effect of deny their humanity. It is more subtle and clever in a sense to take the indirect route to denying their humanity. Exclude them from humanity in order to exclude them from citizenship. Taney didn’t need to use the words “they aren’t human”, and it’s obvious falsehood is the reason it is best not to use the direct words in such cases. It’s just human nature and rhetoric 101. I don’t see anything cited above that excuses Taney from going along with the by-then quite familiar trick.

    One could deny their citizenship without denying their humanity, but no one would think it justified by anything but whim by the 1860s. You could hardly deny their right to vote without denying their citizenship, as with women, without some natural category difference. It doesn’t pass the laugh test for reasonable people. Race didn’t provide that category if biological racism fails. But to declare their citizenship *is* to accept their humanity. And it is a much better to do so because to declare them human is to state the blatantly obvious and enshrine a slur and insult formally that should never have been. It would also be an insult to the intelligence of white people to put it in the Constitution.

    I think Grant is just reflecting democratic sensibilities along with the sensibility I described in saying granting citizenship was of “grander importance” than any previous acts. I don’t see any other way he could have stated the importance of inclusion. Other than the “to the present day” gaffe, I just don’t see the daylight between Huckabee’s statements and Grant’s. I think it’s just two different ways to say the same thing. I think now we tend to explicitly cite humanity denial because it is a shocking statement that better matches our shock in an enlightened time that such things were ever denied as in the days of slave societies.

    • Brooks D. Simpson September 10, 2015 / 11:45 pm

      I don’t think Taney is saying blacks were sub human. That would be at war with other aspects of his thinking about race. He sees them as inferior to whites. He was not alone.

      If you see no difference between what Grant said and Huckabee’s understanding of history, well, that’s interesting. Grant sees Dred Scott as dead. Huckabee still sees it as the law of the land.

      • Mark September 11, 2015 / 1:10 pm

        Okay I read the full Huckabee statement and I see he is not only smarmy but an idiot too.

        But Brooks, you’re conflating two things. Huckabee is a fool for saying that Dred Scott is still the law of the land. But my point is that he’s not wrong for saying that the Dred Scott decision denied black humanity. It seems to me the way you’ve framed the debate over Taney’s view as represented by the Dred Scott decision reprises the Jaffa-Bork debate over original intent of the Constitution, where Jaffa concluded that those who disagreed with him did so over a “legal positivism”.

        You’re arguing from what Taney didn’t say, but the decision wasn’t made in a vacuum. A great many people did think “inferior” meant sub-human (in fact I think a middle-ground position is untenable and always was), and you haven’t cited other aspects of Taney’s thinking that distinguished him from these folks other than that he made legal version of a subtle argument that blacks weren’t fully human. And this form of racism was not an ancient view, contrary to popular belief. Look at the Valladolid debate in Spain over the treatment of natives during conquest of the Americas in 1550-51.

        So Brooks, you can’t just say Grant has a different view from anyone who says they think the Dred Scott decision was a denial of full humanity to blacks. Most people think so and I think so. And lack of full humanity is sub-humanity. Huckabee has nothing to do with this. You’re trying to make the Dred Scott decision say something other than what reasonable people always supposed it did say about Taney’s view, I suppose over a view that the natural law principles of the Declaration aren’t contained within the Constitution. Fine if you want to do the former. But you can’t at the same time endorse this view by Grant’s silence on this point. This isn’t valid reasoning.

        • Brooks D. Simpson September 11, 2015 / 4:00 pm

          I would draw a distinction between “sub-human” and whatever is meant by “subhumanity.” Taney’s comment must be understood in a context of white superiority and black inferiority that sees both groups as human. Surely Taney’s actions as a supporter of colonization, etc., suggest that you place a different stress on the term than he or others would. We just deplore what Taney say in different ways.

          As to what I can and cannot say, I’ve said it and I stand by it. You can disagree, but you’re in no position to tell me what I can and cannot say. We simply disagree.

          • Mark September 11, 2015 / 9:55 pm

            Fair enough, but perhaps you’re not in a position to speak for Grant as you have either. Well, if you’ll permit me to state the disagreement over the humanity of blacks in other terms here goes. I think the Declaration got it right on the moral equality of all men. And intellectual complexity is related to moral complexity. And, to anticipate an objection to this, it does not make damaged humans any less than human. The class human isn’t a degreed thing. One is either 0 or 100%. A brain damaged or retarded person is fully human, just impaired. But if there were some group of beings whose average mental endowments or capacities were less than the average mental endowments of others, that group would be sub-human. How could you treat others as you’d like to be treated (the Golden Rule) if their minds didn’t work the same? You couldn’t. Biological racism was based on pseudo-science–it was false–but the logic was flawless. If what is said were true there would be a subhuman race. Something between monkeys and humans.

            The phrase “beings of an inferior order” meant something specific in Taney’s day. It still does. On the quotations in the post above from Taney, we learn that he asserted it was current common (commonsense) view, that blacks were “beings of an inferior order”. Also we learn that he declared the opinion at the time of the Founders was that they were a “subordinate and inferior class of beings”. I would say that claim is highly contentious since much had changed since that time; it was an attempt to attribute biological racism of Taney’s day to an earlier day. It was a denial that it was merely a temporary concession by those who wanted a union and thought it wouldn’t end well if it was accepted explicitly to appease those who wanted slavery for any reason, and none necessarily had to believe that blacks were inferior. Greeks didn’t think their slaves were inferior, just that someone had to do the labor and it sucked to be them. Remember that erudite free blacks were well known here and abroad. Why not think that those who signed the Constitution accepted a contradiction (certainly with the Declaration) hoping that things would sort themselves out in time. They often do. See Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech. I think Lincoln was largely right. Get the object, the Union, and hope the contradiction sorts itself out. It is hard to believe the Founders didn’t see the contradiction. I would have done the same thing if there were no other choice. But Taney reinterpreted that choice to his own liking.

            So what does “beings of an inferior order” mean? For several millennia, there was a ubiquitous belief in something called the “Great Chain of Being”. It wasn’t some fad. Wikipedia will tell you it is “religious”, but read a few sentences on and you’ll see that is probably not what we’d mean on a more modern understanding of the word. It says it is “derived from Plato”. More likely Plato was merely reflecting this common understanding if nature that went back as far as we know.

            So the “great chain of being” combined with scientific racism says that human races could be lined up from God at the top, then lower to white people, and then an arrangement of non-white people, with blacks at the bottom. The ancients, for whom the only distinction were civilized and barbarian, would have been horrified. It is a denial of the classic or Greco-Roman understanding of man the rational animal. But combined with scientific racism, it was a mashed-up for the service of white supremacy. To assert that blacks were lesser than equal to humans meant at the time that they were closer to apes than whites. Yet we’re to understand that Taney’s declarations “does not deny blacks humanity”. Of course it did. It was the code language of the day. Everyone knew what it meant. White supremacy wants, … well supremacy.

            So even if the history of this phrase could be ignored, I don’t see how I’m to understand we’re to grant that Taney was somehow not committed to the idea that blacks were sub-human, as was a common belief in the Calhoun era driven by partisans of slavery in academia and clergy. But I guess the logic must be because white supremacists don’t care how white supremacy is justified, as long as it is. It seems to me that is what the argument that Taney had a “somewhat different direction” in mind than Huckabee thinks (that “black people aren’t fully human”) really amounts to. It strikes me perverse to consider the ends of white supremacy to be the means of Taney’s neutrality on the question of whether blacks were sub-human. If that is what this neutrality consists of, it is no more than the idea as the ends can justify any means whatever.

          • Brooks D. Simpson September 11, 2015 / 10:49 pm

            We’re going to agree to disagree. Having never claimed to speak for Grant, I see that claim as mere distraction. You tend to take disagreement with you as some sort of moral depravity.

    • Sandi Saunders September 11, 2015 / 5:10 am

      I think you give Huckabee entirely too much credit and I think he would (if he could) deny minorities and immigrants their humanity in a heartbeat if it meant removing them from any place other than subservience because that is the Southern mindset even when no one will admit it. It is always “they” and “them” and language of “the other” when speaking of anyone not white. Only with liberals can they unleash all their invective and vitriol without fear of reprisal or shock, on race and immigration they are still talking in code and apparently still fooling a lot of people. I grew up in the south, SW Virginia to be exact and I know what they mean and how they say things and it is never an accident. President Lyndon Johnson nailed it.

      And I will not dignify the notion that what he said had any resemblance to “no different than” what Grant said. I think Brooks is spot on with Taney, Huckabee and Grant.

  2. Matt McKeon September 11, 2015 / 3:13 am

    Dred Scot is often the go to case of a bad Supreme Court decision for conservatives, often used in right to life anti abortion rhetoric. Never something like Plessy v. Ferguson.

    The irony is that Dred Scot restricted citizenship and rights, while the recent decisions by the Court expanded them.

    The parallel case would be Loving v. Virginia.

  3. bob carey September 11, 2015 / 5:30 am

    The sad thing about this episode is that it appears Medved gave Huckabee an opportunity to recant or alter his original statement on “Dred Scott” which the former governor didn’t take. This tells me that Huckabee either is ignorant about the Constitution or is intentionally presenting this falsehood in order to play to his base. Neither scenario speaks well of Huckabee. What truly upsets me about the statement is that many people are going to believe it because Huckabee said it.
    I think that Taney is one of the most tragic figures in American history, he had a long distinguished career which was overshadowed by his one unfortunate opinion in ‘Dred Scott”. I am relying strictly on memory but I believe that Taney freed his inherited slaves at the first opportunity.

  4. Charles Persinger September 11, 2015 / 5:51 am

    I think all politicians at any level from county clerks to the president need to take a Civil War Era College course that includes Reconstruction before they can run for office.

  5. John Foskett September 11, 2015 / 7:36 am

    Huckabee accordingly proves that he’s an idiot. (1) He doesn’t understand Taney’s opinion; (2) he doesn’t understand that the portion he’s referring to is dictum after Taney had ruled on the merits by findfing a lack of jurisdiction; (3) as you point out so well, he doesn’t understand that subsequent enactments rendered Taney’s dictum a nullity. Why these political clowns pretend that they have j.d’s is beyond me.

    • John Foskett September 11, 2015 / 8:39 am

      I meant to add problem (4). Take the 7 in the majority and leaven that with the concurrences and “sub-concurrences” by Nelson, Grier, Daniel, and Catron. That’s another reason why the Huckster should shut his pie hole when it comes to the “meaning” of the Scott decision.

      • bob carey September 11, 2015 / 11:11 am

        You would think that Huckabee’s statement would get one of the present Justices to speak out. perhaps Justice Thomas, now that would really be a first.

        • John Foskett September 12, 2015 / 8:18 am

          Not a prayer – for appropriate reasons. (1) That would be injecting the Court into a political campaign; (2) it would amount to a Justice expressing an opinion on a prior decision of the Court. If it came up in a “neutral” setting – such as something along the lines of Rehnquist’s book about Habeas Corpus – that might be different. If this clown could read, there’s already plenty out there on Scott v. Sanford, the 14th Amendment , etc., etc.

    • Mark September 12, 2015 / 3:23 pm

      Are you actually saying Taney merely found a lack of jurisdiction in the Scott case, and the merits derived from this fact? Wow. Or at least that Huckabee’s comment only applies to the aspects of the case that you think can be limited to jurisdiction?

      The Court in the Scott case also ruled that Congress never had the right to prohibit slavery in any territory. That any ban on slavery was a violation of the Fifth Amendment, which prohibited denying property rights without due process of law. Moreover, the Taney court on this basis declared The Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. To call this case merely a matter of jurisdiction is quite a stretch.

      Taney could have done what you said John, limit the case to a question of jurisdiction over precedent or some such, and merely ruled against Scott, but he most certainly did not do so. It wouldn’t have caused a sensation as it did, Though it would have been unpopular in any case, even in the South it was a sensation and the idea that the Scott decision provided the answer to the slavery question seemed to take hold is easily seen. If Taney had merely ruled as you say over jurisdiction, and the merits after that, then why did the judgement include sweeping judgement on such things as the Missouri compromise and opining on the inferiority of blacks which could only cause a firestorm of public outcry on the one hand and fire-breathing triumphalism on the other, even though these things should have been irrelevant if the case was as you say? The anti-slavery camp would have been relieved at an outcome of the case over merely jurisdiction against Scott.

      I’m amused at the attempted rehabilitation of Taney’s judgement on Dred Scott here. I always thought Huckster was a romantic fool. But judging by the comments I see on this thread, maybe he’s a bit closer to average than I thought.

      • Brooks D. Simpson September 12, 2015 / 3:32 pm

        I don’t see any effort to rehabilitate Taney on Scott here. I see that you offered an interpretation which is at odds with what other people believe concerning “sub human.” One can be a rather intense white supremacist and still believe blacks are human. Whether that means respecting their humanity is another question altogether.

        • Mark September 12, 2015 / 6:19 pm

          Well I’ve brought the debate down to earth by showing the presentism of positing certain unwarranted things in Taney’s, and others, view. To say one could be a white supremacist and believe blacks equal in mental capacities or potential would be to call the enterprise of scientific racism pointless and unnecessary. It was created for the specific purpose of providing rational justification of white supremacy. To think it unnecessary now merely raises the question of why whites at the time thought it was necessary. If there were dissenters who called it pointless and unnecessary at the time, we could offer examples of people who believed this at the time. But all we have are arguments from silence and the projection of modern, and I would say specious, beliefs about rationality and what it is to be human back into the past. The only reason for anyone to think rational justification for slavery unnecessary or the question of the meaning of black inferiority a matter of indifference at the time would have been because of a belief that black inferiority was self-evident, and therefore evidence superfluous, or that beliefs need not be supported by reason. Some today might consider irrationalism or fideism as an option (postmodernism and all that, or whatever) but it wasn’t a live option at the time, if it ever is. Anything may be sustained in the short-term by mere social inertia or administrative judgement since we’re all creatures of ritual and habit. White supremacy projected confidence, but it had to feign it–inevitability of authority and all that. But in the long-term sustainable things must conform to human reason. Even the above quotations show that Taney, like everyone else, understood that, and merely reveals why he insisted on denying an equal ability to reason of blacks and whites. He had to sustain the institution of slavery in every way he could, and that is what he did in institutionally and intellectually. His descendants must be proud.

      • Sandi Saunders September 12, 2015 / 4:02 pm

        It bears noting that the Dred Scott case was a 7-2 vote so Taney was hardly alone in his notions, but I think those opinions flowed more from fear than actual belief that black people were not human. “For if they [African-Americans] were so received, and entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police regulations which they [the slave States] considered necessary for their own safety. It would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognized as citizens in any one State of the Union, the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, singly or in companies, without pass or passport, and without obstruction, to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased at every hour of the day or night without molestation, unless they committed some violation of law for which a white man would be punished; and it would give them full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its [a slave State’s] own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon public affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went. And all of this would be done in the face of the subject race of the same color, both free and slaves, and inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the State.” He was setting the stage for the Confederacy and their belief that they not only had the right to keep and maintain slavery but the duty to do so because free slaves would be bad for the nation. Taney was too educated to feel that they were not human, or sub-human, he just wanted to be the man who settled the question and he had to deny them any humanity, any place in this nation and any rights to do it…and so he did.

      • John Foskett September 12, 2015 / 7:18 pm

        You don’t understand the term obiter dictum. Wow.

      • John Foskett September 13, 2015 / 7:57 am

        You’re missing my point about Taney’s opinion, which is something even first year law students discern during their first semester. It’s not “rehabilitation of Taney’s judgment”. It’s the application of basic legal principles to what he wrote and whether it was binding precedent on the point.

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