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The Supreme Court Publishes Its Decision in the Dred Scott Case: March 6, 1857

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise.

It had been over ten years since Dred Scott, a slave, had laid suit for his freedom. In the early 1840s, his master, Dr. John Emerson, had followed his army commission to a post in Illinois, taking Dred Scott with him. From Illinois, Emerson went next to Fort Snelling on the west bank of the Mississippi, a free territory, according to the Missouri Compromise. There Scott and his wife remained, hired out by their master, while the sickly Emerson went from post to post. In 1843, Emerson died, and his wife, who lived in Missouri, received his property, along with Dred Scott and Scott’s wife, Harriet.

Dred Scott was convinced that because he and his wife had lived in free territory, they were free. A judge in Missouri agreed—Dred Scott and his wife, he said, were indeed free by the provisions of the Missouri Compromise. Mrs. Emerson appealed the ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court, which, after ten long years, ruled in her favor. Undaunted, Dred Scott’s lawyer appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. The justices agreed to hear the case in 1856.

Dred Scott, about 1857
Dred Scott, about 1857

The chief justice at the time was Roger Taney. Appointed by Andrew Jackson to the court in 1834, Taney had had a long and distinguished career as a justice. He was something of a rarity: he was Catholic and a slave owner who had freed all his slaves. As a young lawyer in Maryland, he had defended a Methodist minister who had been hauled into court for preaching against slavery and in the defense appealed to the Declaration of Independence. Slavery, Taney said at the time, is “a blot upon our national character.” A Jacksonian Democrat to the bone, Taney despised the money interests who, he said, sought “to destroy the spirit of freedom and manly independence in the working classes of society.”

But Chief Justice Taney and four of his associate justices (all southerners) were worried over the growing rift in the union. First, the Missouri Compromise, then the Compromise of 1850, then the Kansas-Nebraska Act—all had failed to bridge the divide. Where the various acts and legislation had failed, the Supreme Court might succeed, thought the nearly 80-year old Taney. Like many Americans, his first concern was for the union; compared to preserving the union, slavery was but a side issue for Taney.

On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court published its decision in the Dred Scott case. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Taney maintained that neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution had the slave population in mind when it spoke of citizens and their rights. “A negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves could not be a citizen, nor was he included in the words ‘all men’ in the Declaration of Independence.” Blacks, Taney argued, “had been for more than a century before regarded as 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; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” As a black man, and therefore excluded from the purview of the Constitution, Dred Scott had no legal right to sue in the courts of Missouri, according to Taney. Whether or not Dred Scott had lived in free territory, he was still a slave, wrote Taney, for the Constitution guaranteed a man his property, and slaves were property.

Roger Taney
Roger Taney

There was more. Chief Justice Taney declared that when the Constitution gave Congress the right to make laws for the territories, it referred only to those territories lying east of the Mississippi River, since Louisiana had not yet been purchased. The Missouri Compromise was, thus, an unconstitutional exercise of congressional power.

The Dred Scott decision thus nullified the Missouri Compromise and so opened up all the territories to slavery—even those, like Oregon, which had been declared free. Furthermore, besides nullifying the Missouri Compromise, the decision toppled popular sovereignty in the territories, since it said the Constitution protected the “property” of any slaveholder anywhere, even in free territory. Many southerners were, of course, pleased with the decision, since it gave them what they sought—equal rights with the North in the territories. Northerners, whether anti-slavery or not, were outraged at what appeared an exercise of raw judicial power in favor of the “slaveocracy.”

Another event served to widen the chasm between North and South. In June 1857, delegates to a constitutional convention in Lecompton, Kansas drew up a pro-slavery constitution to send to the United States Senate for approval for statehood. Most of the convention delegates were pro-slavery, chosen according to a census from which free-soil citizens abstained. The delegates made no provision for a popular vote on the Lecompton constitution, and they approved it, despite the territorial governor’s veto and in spite of free-soil protest. Though President Buchanan at first supported a popular vote on the constitution, he later reneged. On February 2, 1858, he urged Congress to admit Kansas into the Union under the pro-slavery constitution.

Senator Stephen Douglas led the Democratic opposition to President Buchanan. To admit a state under a constitution that had not been ratified by popular vote violated Douglas’ doctrine of popular sovereignty. The “Little Giant” was playing a dangerous game, however; in opposing the president, he could alienate southerners, whose votes he needed if he hoped to win the presidency in 1860. On the other hand, to support the president, he would need to repudiate his doctrine of popular sovereignty and, perhaps, alienate the northern Democrats, whom he represented. He gambled and chose to oppose the president, with fatal consequences for him, as we shall see, in the election of 1860.

A Ballad Refuting Taney

A song written in 1856 seems to have anticipated Chief Justice Taney’s reasoning in Dred Scott v. Sandford—by asserting the personhood of the black man. “Darling Nellie Gray,” written by the abolitionist Benjamin Hanby while a student at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio (a center of antislavery activism), is a plaintive piece wherein a Kentucky slave mourns the loss of his love, Nellie Gray, who has been sold south into Georgia. Hanby’s song became an important and influential ballad for the abolitionist movement.

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