On March 6, 1857, two days after the inauguration, the Supreme Court rendered a decision in the long-pending case of Dred Scott v. Sandford.
After his master’s death in 1843 Scott apparently had tried to buy his freedom. In 1846, with help from white friends, he brought suit in Missouri courts claiming that residence in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory had made him free. A jury decided in his favor, but the state supreme court ruled against him.
Each of the nine justices filed a separate opinion, except one who concurred with Chief Justice Robert B. Taney of Maryland. By different lines of reasoning, seven justices ruled that Scot remained a slave. The aging Taney, whose opinion represented the Court, ruled that Scott lacked legal standing because he lacked citizenship. Taney argued that one became a federal citizen either by birth or by naturalization, which ruled out any former slave. He further argued that no state had ever accorded citizenship to blacks – a statement demonstrably in error.
To clarify further the definition of Scott’s status, Taney moved to a second major question. Residency in a free state had not freed Scott since, in line with precedent, the decision of the state court governed. This left the question of residency in a free territory. On this point, Taney argued that the Missouri Compromise had deprived citizens of property in slaves, an action “not warranted by the constitution.”
The upshot was that the Supreme Court had declared an act of Congress unconstitutional for the first time since Marbury v. Madison (1803), and a major act for the first time ever. Congress had repealed the Missouri Compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska Act three years earlier, but the decision now challenged popular sovereignty. If Congress itself could not exclude slavery from a territory, then presumably neither could a territorial government created by act of Congress.
By this decision the Supreme Court had thought to settle a question that Congress had dodged ever since the Wilmot Proviso surfaced. But far from settling it, it had only fanned the flames of dissension. Little wonder that Republicans protested: the Court had declared their program unconstitutional. It had also reinforced the suspicion that the slavocray was hatching a conspiracy. Were not all but one of the justices who joined Taney southerners?
(Actually, Buchanan already knew the outcome because two other justices had spilled the beans in private letters.) Besides, if Dred Scott were not a citizen and had no standing in court, there was no case before it. The majority ruling was an obiter dictum – a statement not essential to deciding the case and therefore not binding, “entitled to just so much moral weight as would be the judgment of a majority to have congregated in any Washington bar-room.”
Proslavery elements, of course, greeted the Court’s opinion as binding. Now the fire-eaters among them were emboldened to yet another demand. It was not enough to deny Congress the right to interfere with slavery in the territories; Congress had an obligation to protect the property of slaveholders, making a federal slave code the next step.