By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
Throughout the years after the Mexican War, the issue of slavery had poisoned one national institution after another. Churches had split, national political parties had been radically altered, the Democrats turned into a sectional party, and Congress turned into a battleground. Even presidents like Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan were essentially southerners who happened to be from the North, and Zachary Taylor was a slaveholder from Virginia.
The Supreme Court as the Final Resolution
Only the Supreme Court had managed to remain aloof from the curse of the slavery question.
Two days after James Buchanan took office—on March 6, 1857—the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford. Buchanan hoped this decision would end the controversy about slavery in the territories once and for all, and he urged the Court to make the ruling as broad as possible. It’s an instance of the executive branch taking a direct involvement in what the judicial branch was going to do.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Aggravated Sectional Tensions
There was a five-to-four southern majority on the Court at this time, and the Court was headed by Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney of Maryland. Taney had been appointed by Andrew Jackson. He’d been on the Court for a long time already by this period. This majority on the Court took Buchanan’s advice, and went beyond the actual case at hand to issue a sweeping ruling that greatly favored the South, the slaveholding South.
The president and the justices both believed that their decision, in this instance, in Dred Scott, would be accepted by people across the nation, North and South, because of the degree to which people looked toward the Court with respect.
In the end, however, the Dred Scott decision greatly aggravated sectional tensions, and cost the Court much of its credibility in the North.
The Dred Scott Case
Dred Scott was a slave whose master had taken him into the free territory of Wisconsin, and actually lived in Wisconsin and in Illinois, which was also free, of course, for a time.
Scott subsequently had gone back to Missouri, to the slaveholding state of Missouri, and there, backed by abolitionists, he sued his owner for his freedom in 1846. He argued that his residence in free territory made him a free man: “I’ve lived in free territory; how can I still be a slave?” was, in essence, what Scott asked.
Wisconsin was part of the old Northwest Territory, organized in 1787, and therefore it was free territory. The Court ruled against Scott on several points, and Buchanan got involved again. He pressed Justice Robert Greer, of Pennsylvania, to side with the southern majority on the Court.
He shouldn’t have done that; it was improper, but he did, and Greer agreed. Buchanan thought that this would give the decision an element of being a national rather than a sectional decision, if the justice from Pennsylvania joined the justices from the South. The two non-Democratic northern justices dissented from the decision.
The Dred Scott Decision
First, it said that Scott was a black slave and thus not a citizen. Therefore, Scott had no standing to bring suit in federal court. Now, Taney and his cohorts should have thrown out the whole suit at this point, on this technical point of Scott’s lack of citizenship. If Scott could not bring suit, then the Court should not hear his plea. Instead, the Court went on to render a much broader opinion.
It said that even if Scott had been able to sue in federal court, he would have lost his case, because the Missouri Compromise—under which Scott sought freedom—was unconstitutional, said the justices in majority.
The Court held that under the Constitution, citizens could take their property, whether slaves or any other kind of property, anywhere in the United States. Congress had no power to deny citizens the right to take their property wherever they wanted to take it, and thus Scott’s residence in a free territory made absolutely no difference, and he was not entitled to his freedom.
Reactions to the Decision
Northerners in general and Republicans in particular savagely attacked this decision, as new proof of the slave power conspiracy that controlled the American government.
This decision, in the view of Republicans, took their main issue, that being, “We don’t want to allow slavery into the territories,” and denied it to them. They couldn’t use their principal issue in light of the Dred Scott decision. It also seemed to open up the entire country to slavery.
A Political Decision?
Said opponents, “This isn’t just about the territories. If the Constitution says people can take property wherever they want to, why can’t slaveholders move to Massachusetts with their slaves? Why can’t they move to New York with their slaves?” “This doesn’t just affect the territories,” said critics. “This seems to say that slavery can go everywhere in the United States. What is to keep a slaveholder from just moving his slaves to any section, even sections that had ended slavery many, many years before?”
It was a political, not a judicial decision, said opponents of Dred Scott, and it showed that Buchanan and Taney were in league to press the southern point of view.
Common Questions about the Case of Dred Scott v. Sanford
Dred Scott was a slave who was take and and then lived in Wisconsin and Illinois, both of which being free states, for a time.
Dred Scott brought suit to the Supreme Court for his freedom from his owner since his residence in free territory had made him a free man, and therefore, couldn’t be a slave anymore.
The Dred Scott decision cost the Court much of its credibility in the North since many Northerners viewed that decision as a clear example of how the slave power conspiracy controlled the Supreme Court.