The Impact of Dred Scott Decision on the Issue of Slavery


By Gary W. GallagherUniversity of Virginia

After the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court joined political parties, churches, Congress, and the presidency as a casualty, in a sense, of sectionalism. The Court would move further in this direction with its decision in Ableman v. Booth, which was also perceived as strongly sectional and pro-South by people in the North.

Constitution Hall in Lecompton, Kansas
President James Buchanan’s support of the Lecompton Constitution arose controversies regarding the slave power conspiracy. (Image: Bhall87/Public domain)

Oppositions from the North

It didn’t matter that the Kansas-Nebraska Act had effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise several years before. Many northerners still approved of that Compromise of 1820. They considered it correct, and they were very upset that the Court had now weighed in on the other side. Some abolitionists found a silver lining in the Dred Scott decision. They said it was so outrageous that it would make a number of northerners reverse their positions on slavery in the territories. 

Dred Scott Free Negro Bond
The Dred Scott decision showed that the Supreme Court couldn’t help the issue of slavery at that point. (Image: County Court of St. Louis/Public domain)

It would rally support, at least against the extension of slavery, and some Republicans also believed that Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney had gone so far that northern voters would register their displeasure by shifting from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

No Sovereignty?

On the Democratic side, Stephen A. Douglas, and those who believed in popular sovereignty, also opposed the Dred Scott ruling, because it denied the people of the territory the right to decide the question of whether or not they would allow slavery in their own area. 

Popular sovereignty thus received a deathblow at the same time that congressional control over the issue did.

Only the slaveholding South was happy with this decision by the Court. Southern leaders said that if northerners didn’t accept the decision, it would show that they were not law-abiding citizens.

As usual, there was very little common ground between the two sides. 

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Lecompton Constitution

In late 1857, the struggle over the Lecompton Constitution in Kansas broke into the national headlines. When President James Buchanan supported it, many of the people in the North said that it was a further proof of the slave power conspiracy.

It caused further erosion of northern Democratic sentiment. The Republicans, meanwhile, gained strength in the North as a result of Dred Scott, and as a result of the controversy over the Lecompton Constitution. 

Parties Divided

After 1857, there was no truly national political party in the United States. The Democrats had a northern and a southern wing, but the policies of the Democratic Party were clearly the policies that the South wanted.

Many northerners, upset with what they perceived as too much southern influence, increasingly envisioned a Union without a South. That played a major role in the economic life of the United States. They tried to envision a situation in which the South wouldn’t exercise such disproportionate, such enormous influence on national affairs. 

A Game-changing Economic Alliance 

In the mid- to late 1850s, many northerners began to think in terms of an economic alliance between the East and the Northeast, and the western sections of the nation—which would make the South unnecessary for American prosperity.

Immigration was at flood tide, and was supplying the badly needed manpower to work in factories. 

Manufacturers in the past had opposed free land in the West, because it would draw laborers away from the manufacturing sector. But now, immigration meant that there was enough labor, and cheap land in the West could entice settlers to move there, where they could farm and become customers for northern manufactured goods, and could, in turn, supply raw materials that would feed the manufacturing base in the East.

Thus, manufacturers and land-hungry farmers could both support a national policy that provided cheap land in the West and supported governmental sponsored internal improvements, that is, railroads and roads that would connect the East to the West, and along which goods could move, and would help tie those two sections together economically. They also said that some protection of American industry in the form of tariffs would be necessary.

The Issue of Slavery

Slavery in the territories, argued many northerners, would get in the way of this kind of development. The Republican Party called on a range of changes that would further this notion of an eastern and western alliance. 

They called for a Homestead Act that would make free land available in the West. They also called for government support of agricultural and mechanical colleges to train farmers and other workers; government support of internal improvements including railroads and roads; and a strong protective tariff.

It appealed to various elements of the North, and it anticipated a move for the United States toward a position as a modern capitalist commercial colossus. That is what many in the Republican Party were envisioning for the United States, a march toward this status as a great industrial power down the road, and the slaveholding agricultural South did not fit in that picture very comfortably.

Common Questions about the Impact of Dred Scott Decision on the Issue of Slavery

Q: How did the Northerners react to the Dred Scott decision?

While they were mostly upset that the Court had weighed in on the other side, some abolitionists said that it would make some northerners reverse their positions on slavery.

Q: What did slaveholding Southerners said about the Court’s decision?

The Southern leaders who viewed slavery as their natural right were happy with the decision, and also said that northerners were not law-abiding if they did not accept that decision.

Q: Why did the slaveholding South couldn’t help the country in its path of developing into an industrial power?

Cheap land in the West could entice immigrants to move there so they could farm and become customers for northern manufactured goods, not to mention supplying raw materials feeding the manufacturing base in the East. These depended on the emancipation of slavery, which was not acceptable to the slaveholders in the South.

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