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Dred Scott (Martin, 1997)

Textbook
James Kirby Martin, et al., eds., America and Its Peoples:  A Mosaic in the Making, 3rd ed., vol. 1 (New York:  Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1997), 475.
By a 7-2 margin, the Court ruled that Dred Scott had no right to sue in federal court, that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, and that Congress had no right to exclude slavery from the territories.

All nine justices rendered separate opinions, but Chief Justice Taney delivered the opinion that expressed the position of the Court’s majority. His opinion represented a judicial defense of the most extreme proslavery position.

The chief justice made two sweepings rulings. The first was that Dred Scott had no right to sue in federal court because neither slaves nor fee blacks were citizens of the United States.

Second, Taney declared that Congress had no right to exclude slavery from federal territories since any law excluding slavery property from the territories was a violation of the Fifth Amendment prohibition against the seizure of property without due process of law. For the first time since Marbury v. Madison in 1803, the Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional.

In a single decision, the Court sought to resolve all the major constitutional questions raised by slavery. It declared that the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were not intended to apply to African Americans. It stated that the Republican party platform – baring slavery from the western territories – was unconstitutional. And it ruled that Stephen Douglas’s doctrine of “popular sovereignty” – which stated that territorial governments had the power to prohibit slavery – was also unconstitutional.

Radical abolitionists called for secession. Many Republicans – including an Illinois politician named Abraham Lincoln – regarded the decision as part of a slave power conspiracy to legalize slavery throughout the United States.

The Dred Scott decision was a major political miscalculation. In its ruling, the Supreme Court sought to solve the slavery controversy once and for all. Instead the Court intensified sectional strife, undercut possible compromise solutions to the divisive issue of the expansion of slavery, and weakened the moral authority of the judiciary.

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