A Supreme Court Tragedy: Dred Scott v. Sandford

The Taney Supreme Court.

In 1857, the United States Supreme Court decided one of the most controversial cases in the history of the country. Just days after James Buchanan began his term as president, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote the opinion for the Court, ruling that neither slaves nor freedmen could be citizens of the United States. The implications of this decision, and its reasoning, have been analyzed, dissected, and discussed since 1857. While many have concluded it is one of the Supreme Court’s worst decisions, its impact on Antebellum America should not be overlooked.

Dred Scott.

Long before the Supreme Court heard Dred Scott’s case, in 1834, his owner John Emerson brought Scott, a lifelong slave, to Illinois. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 267. He stayed there two years as a slave in violation of Illinois’ law prohibiting slavery. See id. Then, Emerson brought Scott to the Wisconsin Territory, now known as the state of Minnesota. Id. The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery in that territory as well, but nonetheless, Emerson bought a new slave, Harriet, who Scott married. Id. Emerson, before his death in 1843, brought the Scott family to Missouri and bequeathed them as slaves to his wife. Id. In 1846, Scott brought a lawsuit against Emerson’s wife for his freedom, arguing that he resided in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory for a prolonged period of time, making him a free man. Id. at 268; see also Vincent C. Hopkins, Dred Scott’s Case (New York, 1951) 1-8; Walter Ehrlich, “Was the Dred Scott Case Valid?” Journal of American History, LV (1968), 256-65; Walter Ehrlich, “History of the Dred Scott Case Through the Decision of 1857,” (Washington University, 1950).

While Scott initially lost the case, the court granted a retrial, and in 1850, a jury decided that Scott was a free man. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 268; John D. Lawson (ed.), American State Trials (17 vols.; St. Louis, 1921), XIII, 223-38. Emerson’s wife appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which held that Scott was not a free man, reasoning that states had the option of respecting other states’ laws regarding slavery, and Missouri was choosing not to respect the laws of Illinois in this instance. David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 268.

By the time of the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision, Emerson’s wife had left Missouri and transferred ownership of the Scott family to her brother John Sanford. John Sanford being a New York resident allowed Scott’s attorney to file a new action in federal court in 1853, taking advantage of the diverse citizenship clause of the Constitution. See id. at 269That clause permits a party residing in one state, like Missouri, to file an action in federal court in his or her state against a party residing in a different state, like New York. In Scott’s case, the federal court held that he properly brought the action under the diverse citizenship clause, but nonetheless, applying the law, he was still a slave. Id. citing Hopkins, Dred Scott’s Case, 23-25; Lawson, American State Trials, XIII, 242-55. Dissatisfied, Scott’s attorneys filed an appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court Chamber in 1857, located in the United States Capitol.

The Supreme Court faced two fundamental questions in the case: (1) Was Dred Scott a citizen of Missouri and thus eligible to file a lawsuit against the citizen of another state? and (2) If he was a citizen and had standing to bring the lawsuit, was the law in Illinois that prohibited slavery constitutional? Multiple Congresses and presidents had grappled with these questions with the Wilmot Proviso, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, none of which resolved the issue of slavery.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Samuel Nelson. By: Mathew Brady.

Following the initial round of oral argument, the justices convened to discuss the case, and Justice Samuel Nelson moved for reargument not being satisfied with the extent of the arguments. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 272 citing Charles Warren, The Supreme Court in United States History (rev. ed., 2 vols.; Boston, 1926), II, 285. This pushed the case beyond the Election of 1856, which would put James Buchanan in the White House. Then, even after the reargument of the case in December 1856, the Justices of the Court did not meet until February 14, 1857, just weeks before the inauguration of Buchanan. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 272. When the Justices convened, they agreed that Missouri’s law applied as the Missouri court held and the case was not properly before a federal court. Id. citing John A. Campbell, Nov. 24, 1870, and Samuel Nelson, May 13, 1871, to Samuel Tyler, in Tyler’s Memoir of Roger Brooke Taney (Baltimore, 1872), 382-85.

Then, after the Justices had met and decided that the case was not properly in a federal court, the dissenting Justices decided that they would salvage some progress out of a regressive case by writing in their opinion that the Missouri Compromise was constitutional. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 274. This pronouncement forced the majority to address the issue as well in their opinion. Chief Justice Roger Taney authored the Court’s opinion in just three weeks, a remarkably short time for such a consequential case. See id. at 275.

Chief Justice Roger Taney. By: Mathew Brady.

Chief Justice Taney, writing the majority opinion, held that Dred Scott was not a citizen and that emancipated slaves, and their descendants, could not become citizens. See id. The Court ruled that emancipated slaves could become citizens of their respective states, if their state permitted it, but they could not attain “federal citizenship.” Id. With this holding, the majority could have simply dismissed the action, as they held that Scott was not entitled to file the lawsuit because he was not a citizen. The merits of Scott’s argument would then be moot. However, the majority opinion continued:

“Now, if the removal [to Illinois and Wisconsin] . . . did not give them [the Scott family] their freedom, then by his own admission he is still a slave; and whatever opinions may be entertained in favor of the citizenship of a free person of the African race, no one supposes that a slave is a citizen of the State or of the United States. If therefore, the acts done by his owner did not make them free persons, he is still a slave, and certainly incapable of suing in the character of a citizen.” Id. at 276.

Further, Chief Justice Taney held that the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which had typically been invoked in the issues of “jury trial, rights to cross-examine witnesses, and the like” ensured that a Congressional enactment that “excluded one type of property and not another” was unconstitutional. See id. According to Chief Justice Taney:

“[A]n act of Congress which deprives a citizen of the United States of his liberty or property [including slave property] merely because he came himself or brought his property into a particular territory of the United States, and who had committed no offense against the laws, could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law.” Id. citing Edward S. Corwin, “The Doctrine of Due Process of Law Before the Civil War,” Harvard Law Review, XXIV (1911), 366-85, 460-79.

At best, this was a “tortured construction” of the clause in the Constitution providing: “Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 277. Regardless, a majority of the Court was willing to stretch the limits of jurisprudence and logical reasoning in deciding that Dred Scott was not a citizen and the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.

Justice Benjamin Curtis did not understand how the majority could continue their opinion after holding that Scott was not a citizen. Justice Curtis, in his dissenting opinion, wrote:

Associate Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Curtis.

“I do not hold any opinion of this court or any court binding, when expressed on a question not legitimately before it. . . . The judgment of this court is that the case is to be dismissed for want of jurisdiction, because the plaintiff was not a citizen of Missouri. . . . Into that judgment, according to a settled course of this Court, nothing appearing after a plea to the merits can enter. A great question of Constitutional law, deeply affecting the peace and welfare of the country, is not, in my opinion, a fit subject to be thus reached.” Id. at 278.

Throughout the free states, there was outrage in response to the Court’s decision. Those disappointed by the Court’s decision did not attack the decision as much as the Court, and Chief Justice Taney in particular. See id. at 281. The reasoning that he employed in writing the decision was simply illogical and undermined faith in the decision. If the Court decided that Scott could not initiate the lawsuit as he was not a citizen, then the matter should have been dismissed outright, but Chief Justice Taney continued his decision declaring the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.

At least some portion of the outrage was due to the fact that in 1857, there was a strong tradition of judicial restraint. See id. at 285. Where previous courts had restrained from being judicially active in that they generally did not nullify laws. It is notable, however, that by this time presidents and Congresses had been unable or unwilling to confront the issue of slavery. Whether it was justified or not, the Court apparently interpreted the political climate as requiring a departure from the status quo of judicial restraint.

The Inauguration of James Buchanan. By: John Wood.

Just prior to the decision being handed down was the inauguration of James Buchanan. President Buchanan, during the day of his inauguration, added fuel to the fire. A crowd witnessed him and the Chief Justice exchanging words prior to his inaugural address. Id. at 287. Then, in President Buchanan’s inaugural address, regarding the issue of slavery in the territories, he said:

“[A] judicial question which legitimately belongs to the Supreme Court of the United States, before whom it is now pending, and will, it is understood, be speedily and finally settled. To their decision, in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit, whatever this may be, though it has ever been my individual opinion that, under the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the appropriate period will be when the number of actual residents in the Territory shall justify the formation of a Constitution with a view to its admission as a state.” James D. Richardson (ed.), A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1902 (11 vols., New York, 1907), V, 431.

Abraham Lincoln in 1857.

The newly-formed Republican Party was quick to attack President Buchanan for his actions. William Seward unleashed vitriol speaking about President Buchanan’s inaugural address when he said that President Buchanan used “words as bland as those which the worst of all the Roman emperors pronounced when he assumed the purple.” Congressional Globe, 35 Cong., 1 sess., 939-45. Abraham Lincoln was keen to identify how Stephen Douglas, Franklin Pierce, Chief Justice Taney, and President Buchanan all seemed to have the same approach regarding the Dred Scott decision, making it clear that there was at least coordination between the parties if not conspiratorial action. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 288-89.

It is notable that the Dred Scott decision itself touched on a narrow segment of individuals, as it annulled the Missouri Compromise, which Congress had already repealed in 1854, and denied freedom to slaves “in an area where there were no slaves.” Id. at 290. However, the regressive nature of the case was sufficient to consolidate antislavery forces and generate more tension in the country. Whether a widespread conspiracy existed is debatable, but the circumstances surrounding the case indicated that a conspiracy was at least possible, inflaming segments of the population. See id. at 291. What the Supreme Court hoped would begin to resolve the issues surrounding slavery throughout the country became the latest flashpoint in the ongoing national debate.


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