Early widow gave control of her late husband’s estate

Early Life and Career:Harriet Nancy Williams was born in New York on January 21st, 1802, the daughter of a  prominent Federalist Senator and a similarly politically-minded school teacher mother. Harriet received her education at home alongside her five older brothers, three of whom also went on to become lawyers in the footsteps of their father. This exposure and competition right at home had a large impact on Harriet’s personality: she was renowned for her iconic blend of quiet thoughtfulness behind her desk and fiery eloquence as an orator. Along with her noted brand of polite stubbornness and refusal of rejection based on her gender, Harriet became one of the first women to pass the bar examination and she quickly rose the ranks of New York lawyers, inserting herself into a hugely male-dominated profession. By 1840, President James Tallmadge, an anti-slavery, newly-aligned Whig party member, nominated Williams for the Chief Justice position and she was voted in by a Senate house controlled by the Whigs who had the first two female senators. Besides her trailblazing for female lawyers, William’s ruling on the Dred Scott vs Sanford case in 1857 has been a point of contention amongst historians and constitutional scholars for more than a century.The Dred Scott Decision:Besides being the first female Chief Justice, Harriet Williams is also best known for her decision in a Supreme Court hearing that is noted by most historians as the final bout of sectionalism before the secession of the Southern states resulting in the Civil War. Dred Scott had first filed a lawsuit against the widow of his master, Dr. John Emerson, in Missouri state court on the grounds that his residence in Illinois and Wisconsin, a free state and free territory respectively, was cause for his release. The state court ruled Scott to be free however, this decision was overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court. After Emerson’s widow gave control of her late husband’s estate to her brother, John Sanford, the case was brought before federal court as Sanford was not a resident of Missouri. The federal court ruled in Sanford’s favor and the case was then brought before Harriet William’s Supreme Court. The trial was long and heated, with the Justices firmly split in decision. Justice Williams was supported most prominently by Justice John McLean of Ohio and Justice Benjamin R. Curtis of Massachusetts who held firm beliefs in the Constitutional legitimacy of the Missouri Compromise and the rights of a slaves freedom in non-slaves states to be recognized. Justice Taney was the firmest in his opposition of Chief Justice Williams, citing that state citizenship had nothing to do with federal citizenship, therefore African Americans could never be citizens of America because “as beings of an inferior order…altogether unfit to associate with the white race…; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Finally in late January 1857, the final ruling of 5 to 4 in favour of Scott, stated that a slave who had resided in a free state was entitled to their freedom and that African Americans who were citizens of a state were automatically considered citizens of the United States of America. Williams defended the ruling in her opinion for the court by extending the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as outlined in the Declaration of Independence to be inclusive of African Americans due to the preface “all men” not explicitly excluding African Americans. As well, she pointed that the Constitution requires all states, and thereby the federal government, must grant the person “all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States” as in Article IV, Section 2, which includes the right to sue in federal courts, and recognition as a citizen in one state is therefore extended to the rest of the country. Increasing Sectionalism and War:The Dred Scott decision resulted in immediate uproar from the South as it set a precedent for slaves who had been living in free states, and yet were not emancipated, to sue in state courts and the courts being forced to grant their freedom on the basis of the Dred Scott decision. The South began to enter into a state of panic as a mass exodus of previously enslaved African Americans walked free from their masters and migrated to the Northern free states in the hope of work and protection. Following the decision, the South entered into a state of economic depression as many previously prosperous plantations lost their slaves and the dependency of the Southern economy on slavery became glaringly obvious. The ruling, combined with John C. Fremont’s upset win over James Buchanan in the presidential election in 1856, caused all the states South of the 36°30 parallel to secede between October and December of 1857 forming the Confederacy of the United States of America. The Confederacy claimed that the North had unchecked power of federal affairs and the anti-slavery movements taking over Congress threatened their way of life. Following this secession came the two bloodiest years in the entirety of American history. The Union was bolstered by free African Americans after the Emancipation Proclamation passed by Fremont in July 1858, with the former slaves flocking in droves to the Northern cause and forming entirely black regiments. The South struggled through the Civil War as resources were scarce: the economy was in shambles due to the desertion of slaves, leaving the Confederacy unable to raise proper funds in order to support their troops, and they were wildly outnumbered by the Union. Over the course of two years the Confederacy was completely wiped out, and once prosperous Southern cities were decimated, vaulting the Southerners into an excruciatingly painful era of Reconstruction.Reconstruction Era: After the surrender of the Confederate Army to the Union in February 1860, the newly reformed country could not be more different. The war was fought entirely in the Deep South and the Northern states were affected mainly by casualties only. Congress was now tasked with trying to put the country back together as quickly as possible and resolve lingering tensions across the 36°30 parallel. In the election of 1860, the Republican nominee Benjamin Wade won on a platform of equal rights for African Americans, severe punishment for the few remaining Confederate leaders, and a strong federal government presence in the Southern states while the South was being rebuilt. One of Wade’s first accomplishments in office was the ratification of the 15th amendment, which formally abolished slavery in the United States. In his speech to Congress, Wade directly referenced Harriet Williams’ argument in the Dred Scott decision, pointing that the Declaration references all men when establishing unalienable rights, therefore African Americans should be entitled to the same political rights and opportunities as white people. President Wade and his Republican supporters in the Senate and House of Representatives continued to pass legislation restricting state powers and enforcing the recognition of freedmen rights. Though many Deep South states, including Mississippi and  South Carolina tried to pass laws restricting black rights, all attempts were squashed by Congress intervention before they could gain traction. Soon the once powerful white plantation owners of the South collapsed, and the former Confederate states were rebuilt on the backs of newly empowered African Americans supported by a more powerful than ever central government. For anyone exploring how an entire social system, economy, and culture could be altered monumentally in less than a decade, I give you one person to consider: Harriet Nancy Williams and the Supreme Court ruling that changed American history.