The Wrong Side

[the class of persons who had been imported as slaves] had no rights which the white man was bound to respect

Chief Justive Roger Taney in his majority decision on Scott vs Sandford, aka the Dred Scott case

A few years ago I started researching the history of Cooperstown. This meant spending delightful hours at a research library, reading book after book on the area, noticing all the historical plaques on buildings and around town, and, of course, googling and following subsequent rabbit trails.

One of the surprising things I learned was that a Supreme Court justice considered Cooperstown his home. To me, this was bigger than baseball. Bigger than the wealthy people who vacationed here. Bigger than James Fenimore Cooper’s awful books.

68 Main Street, Cooperstown

A Supreme Court justice! Holy crow, right?!

We named a street for him in the village.

His tiny lawyer’s office is now on display at the Farmers’ Museum.

Why, then, had I never heard about this man?

It took all of one Google search and I had my answer. At the end of the first paragraph of Samuel Nelson’s Wikipedia write-up, it says, “He concurred on the 1857 Dred Scott decision…”

Dred Scott is arguably one of the worst decisions the Supreme Court ever made. The majority decision held, basically, that slaves had no rights. While Justice Nelson concurred with the majority, he based his decision on the fact that he believed that the question of slavery was one that each state needed to decide for itself.

Regardless of his reasoning, Justice Nelson was on the wrong side of history. A few years later, the country was in a civil war, and some 620,000 lives later, the majority ruling in that case was irrelevant.

I thought a lot about Justice Nelson during the most recent impeachment trial.

I was reading a story about senators being censured for their votes in that impeachment and ran across this regarding Pat Toomey, senator from Pennsylvania:

“We did not send him there to vote his conscience. We did not send him there to do the right thing or whatever he said he’s doing,” Washington County GOP Chair Dave Ball told KDKA. “We sent him there to represent us.”

Fox News

People can be caught up in what feels like a righteous movement and still be dead wrong. Think about the Roman Catholic church and Galileo.

I wanted to write Washington County GOP Chair Dave Ball and ask him, “Did you really mean that? Is that how you feel about all trials? Don’t you want people to have consciences and make rational decisions based on the evidence they hear? Are you going to regret those words?”

I imagine that Samuel Nelson may have rued his decision. At least I like to think he would have.

I love the way The Farmers’ Museum handled it. Inside Samuel Nelson’s lawyer’s office is a display explaining Dred Scott because it was probably the most important case he heard — and his worst decision.

One Comment on “The Wrong Side

  1. One does wonder what Nelson must have been thinking in the twilight of his life, seeing the Civil War rage, with his decision as part of the build to that.

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