About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for "Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court"

Good afternoon, and welcome to the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and I’m glad you could be with us today, whether you are here in the theater or joining us through YouTube.

Before we hear from our guest speaker, Paul Finkelman, I’d like to let you know about two other programs coming up this month.

On Wednesday, January 17, at noon, military historian Max Boot will tell us about his new book on legendary CIA operative Edward Lansdale, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.    

And the next day, Thursday, January 18, at 7 p.m., we’ll show the Emmy Award–winning HBO documentary Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. Based on the book of the same name, this 1987 film features actors and actresses reading actual letters home from men and women serving in the Vietnam War.

To learn more about these and all of our public programs and exhibits, consult our monthly Calendar of Events online at Archives.gov. Check our website or sign up at the table outside the theater to get email updates. You’ll also find information about other National Archives programs and activities.

Another way to get more involved with the National Archives is to become a member of the National Archives Foundation. The Foundation supports the work of the agency, especially its education and outreach programs. Pick up your application for membership in the lobby or become a member online at archivesfoundation.org.

For most people long out of school, thinking back on U.S. history dredges up memories of lessons on the Revolutionary War, maybe the establishment of the Constitution and the War of 1812, and then a jump to the beginnings of the Civil War. The “in-between” time may be indistinct, but it saw the emergence of a growing, yet increasingly divided, nation.

Throughout this period, the federal government, time and time again, had to deal with the questions of slavery and its expansion.

Among the voluminous records of federal courts in the National Archives are hundreds of “freedom suits,” cases brought by slaves seeking to obtain their freedom. One such case initiated by Dred Scott in 1846 made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where the final decision became one of the most infamous decisions of the Court’s history.

Our guest today looks at three notable pre–Civil War Supreme Court justices and how they upheld the institution of slavery in ruling after ruling—the first Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall, Justice Joseph Story, and Chief Justice Roger Taney.

Paul Finkelman is the president of Gratz College in greater Philadelphia. Before taking this position, he held the Fulbright Chair in Human Rights and Social Justice at the University of Ottawa School of Law. He has held a number of endowed chairs as a tenured professor or as a visitor, including the John Hope Franklin Chair in American Legal History at Duke Law School. He is the author of more than 200 scholarly articles—including three for the National Archives magazine Prologue—and the author or editor of more than 50 books in a wide variety of areas including American legal history, U.S. Constitutional law, American slavery, the First Amendment, the history of the Second Amendment, American Jewish history, civil rights, and legal issues surrounding American sports. His work has been cited in four decisions by the United States Supreme Court, numerous other courts, and in many appellate briefs.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Paul Finkelman.