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A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker.

[Detail] A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker

The Dred Scott Case

The most important legal case of the period was the Dred Scott case, which according to Supreme Court historian Bernard Schwartz was a "major factor in precipitating the political polarization of the nation" (A History of the Supreme Court, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). Dred Scott was a slave who was taken by his master, a military surgeon, to posts in the free state of Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, which was free as a result of the Missouri Compromise passed by Congress in 1830. Scott lived for 12 years in Illinois and Wisconsin. In 1842, he returned to St. Louis with his master, who died in 1843. In 1846, Scott sued his master’s widow for freedom based on his years spent in free territories. The case was not resolved until 1857, when the Supreme Court ruled against Scott, holding that blacks could not be citizens, that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because Congress had violated citizens’ property rights and substantive due process rights in banning slavery from the territories, and that Missouri law was the ruling law in the case.

The decision caused an uproar: slaveholders greeted it with enthusiasm and abolitionists reacted with horror. A Dr. J.H. Van Evrie responded to the decision with the following words:

This opinion of Chief Justice Taney and those of his eminent colleagues of the Supreme Court of the Republic, is an epoch in our civil history, which is doubtless destined in all future time to be a land mark in American civilization…

The doctrine of 1776, that all (white) men "are created free and equal," is universally accepted and made the basis of all our institutions, State and National, and the relations of citizenship — the rights of the individual — in short, the status of the dominant race, is thus defined and fixed for ever.

But there have been doubts and uncertainties in regard to the negro. Indeed, many (perhaps most) American communities have latterly sought to include him in the ranks of citizenship, and force upon him the status of the superior race.

This confusion is now at an end, and the Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott decision, has defined the relations, and fixed the status of the subordinate race forever — for that decision is in accord with the natural relations of the races, and therefore can never perish. It is based on historical and existing facts, which are indisputable, and it is a necessary, indeed unavoidable inference, from these facts.

(Page iii, "The Dred Scott Decision; Opinion of Chief Justice Taney")

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In contrast, Samuel A. Foot suggested that a reorganization of the Supreme Court might be necessary to prevent the Southern majority from essentially creating a new Constitution for the nation:

If these opinions are clothed with judicial authority, and for that reason are the law of the land, we cannot fail to see, that they give the country a new constitution, and a new system of law, on the subject of slavery and the government of our territories, and widely different from those given us by our fathers, and under which we have hitherto lived. But if they are extra judicial, mere "obiter dicta," and have no judicial authority, then a most serious question arises for the decision of the country, and upon which every citizen should be prepared to form an enlightened judgment; and that question is, what constitutional and lawful action can be taken, to prevent these opinions from being engrafted on our Constitution and laws by judicial legislation. Should the Supreme Court of the United States remain organized as at present, with only nine judges, and five of them citizens of the slave states, there can scarcely remain a doubt but that, as cases arise, they will be decided in accordance with these opinions. Congress has power to reorganize that court; and the question is, Shall that be done, so as to give the free states a fair representation in that tribunal? In favor of this measure, it is said, that the slave states have less than half the number of free white people, and less than one-third of the amount of litigation, which the free states have; and that it is, consequently, just and proper, that the Court should be so organized, as to give each portion of the Union an equal and fair proportion of the judges. On the other hand, it is said, re-organization of the Court would be a harsh and dangerous measure. Each citizen must decide for himself which is the greater evil, to re-organize the Court, or allow these opinions to become parts of our constitution and laws, and give us a new constitutional and legal system on the subject of slavery and our territories.

(Pages 18 and 19, "An Examination of the Case of Dred Scott Against Sandford")

Several documents on the case can be found in the collection by searching using the keyword Dred Scott. Small groups of students might be assigned particular documents to analyze and report on to the class. Students could also dig deeper by searching for earlier documents that present views of the Chief Justice, Roger B. Taney. Questions that could guide the class' inquiry are:

  • What were the facts of the case?
  • What were the major issues in the case?
  • What arguments were made by Scott’s attorneys?
  • What arguments were made by Sandford’s attorneys?
  • What decision was reached in the case? What reasoning did the Court use in making its decision? What values and perspectives are embodied in the decision? Do earlier writings by Chief Justice Taney shed light on the decision?
  • Was there a dissenting opinion in the case? If so, how did it differ from the majority opinion?
  • How did various groups of people respond to the decision?
  • What was the decision’s impact on the nation?

Also note that the Supreme Court Historical Society presents excellent teaching materials on the case at http://www.landmarkcases.org/dredscott/home.html (external link).

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