Airs Sunday, February 10 at 6 p.m. How could a nation founded on a Declaration that proclaimed "all men are created equal" permit slavery? Nowhere was this contradiction more stark than in federal courts. In this one-hour Humankind special, we'll consider several historical flashpoints, which forced the judicial issues. In one case, historians, legal scholars and actors re-create the fugitive slave trial of Anthony Burns, a teenager born a slave in Virginia who escaped to freedom in Boston. The federal court proceedings that followed his arrest and court-ordered return to slavery provoked the largest abolitionist protest the nation had ever seen. We also look in-depth at the most controversial ruling in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court -- the Dred Scott case, which held that blacks had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect." We examine how these cases aggravated tensions before the Civil War, stirred up abolitionist sentiment and harmed the legitimacy of the courts.
With historians including Columbia University’s Eric Foner, who won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for his book, ‘The Fiery Trial – Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery’, we examine the pre-Civil War role that U.S. federal courts played in upholding slavery. We consider the notorious Dred Scott ruling, in which the Supreme Court held that blacks have no rights that whites must respect, as well as a historic fugitive slave case in Boston that triggered the largest anti-slavery protest the nation had ever seen (includes dramatizations).