Dred Scott – Worst Supreme Court Decision Ever?

In Late 1856 and early 1857, a case moved up to the Supreme Court that involved the issue of slavery in the territories. Scott was owned by an army doctor and had been taken along to live in Illinois, a free state, and then to Minnesota Territory, north of Missouri Compromise line.

Missouri law had on occasion held that slaves taken to free states or territories could be freed.  While this might not happen on a visit, surely the long residence gave him a case. And at one level, he was held to be freed. The Missouri State Supreme Court held otherwise, saying the precedents did not apply because other states “were possessed with a dark spirit in relation to slavery” and thus it was time to take a harder line. When the statement ended with a statement about how slavery was given by the providence of God to put the Negro into the civilized world, you start to get the feeling that case-law has ceased to be the issue.

Given the political situation in the 1850s, with the issue of slavery in the territories becoming an increasingly hot subject. In February, when the time came to begin writing the decision, the court was split three ways – Four  Southern Democrats wanted a ‘broad decision’ involving the Missouri Compromise, two Northern Democrats favored a narrow judgement against Scott without political overtones, and the Republican and Whig judges judged in Scott’s favor.  So it was decided to have the court give a narrow decision against Scott.

But a few days later, something changed. Taney, the Chief Justice decided to write a broad opinion. Feeling he needed more support, he decided to pressure one of the narrow deciders, Justice Grier,  to accept the broad decision. To do this, he appealed to the President Elect, Buchanan, who was from the same state, to add his influence.

Needless to say, this kind of log-rolling isn’t usually part of court decisions. And it gave a non-member insight into the decision, and influence.  The President even alluded to the coming decision in his Inaugural Address.

Taney started out with the statement that blacks could never be considered as citizens of the United States, free or not free. Even if a state made one a citizen of a state, this still would not confer citizenship.  This is directly contradicted by Article Four, Section Two, which directly states the opposite. Also, there were black citizens in several states at the time of the forming of the Constitution, so if the Founders had wanted to exclude them they could have done so.

Not content with denying citizenship, he went on to say that Negroes were so inferior that they had no rights that white men were bound to respect.  This strange statement was flatly contradicted by every state in the Union, including slave states.  Even in slave states, you couldn’t just murder a slave and not be in violation of law. They had some rights.

Having beaten the figurative black man enough, Taney turned to Congress. He then denied that Congress had the right to make laws about slavery in the Territories. The ordinance of 1787, which freed the Northwest Territories, was legal (according to Taney – two judges also nullified that), but even though the Constitution states that Congress can make all needful laws and regulations for them.  The fact that Congress had done so eight times since made no difference.

Now this issue also was not a part of the original case. Scott wasn’t contending that the Minnesota Law was invalid or valid.  So by inserting a new point into the case Taney had made another error, even neglecting the shaky foundations.

There was one more wrinkle in the case. When the two dissenters turned in their written judgement, they were surprised to find they couldn’t get a copy of Taney’s decision. Taney was too busy adding eighteen additional pages of rebuttal to his decision!

This was so irregular that one of the dissenting justices resigned over it

The effect of this decision in a legal sense was nil.  Its attempt to in effect make the Republican Party platform unconstitutional was to heavy handed to affect Republicans.  It had more of an effect on the Democrats, ironically, since the Northern Democrats were forming up around the theory that citizens of a territory could vote slavery in our out — Popular Sovereignty.  Taney’s decision, if accepted, denied even that.  So it drove a wedge into the increasing divide between the Northern and Southern wings of the party.

In 1858, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln forced Douglas to state his belief that Popular Sovereignty was legal.  This would be enough to make him unacceptable enough to the Deep South Ultras that they split the party in 1860, allowing Lincoln to win the election.


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