Dred Scott (Appleby, 2003)

Joyce Appleby et al., The American Vision (New York: Glencoe McGraw-Hill, 2003), 334-335.
Sectional Divisions Grow

Despite Buchanan’s determination to adopt policies that would calm the growing sectional strife in the country, a series of events helped drive Americans in the North and South even further apart.

The Dred Scott Decision

In his March 1857 inaugural address, James Buchanan suggested that the nation let the Supreme Court decide the question of slavery in the territories. Most people who listened to the address did not know that Buchanan had contacted members of the Supreme Court and therefore knew that a decision was imminent.

Many Southern members of Congress had quietly pressured the Supreme Court justices to issue a ruling on slavery in the territories. They expected the Southern majority on the court to rule in favor of the South. They were not disappointed. Two days after the inauguration, the Court released its opinion in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford. (see page 1080 for more information on Dred Scott v. Sanford.)

Dred Scott was an enslaved man whose Missouri slaveholder had taken him to live in free territory before returning to Missouri. Assisted by abolitionists, Scott sued to end his slavery, arguing that the time he had spent in free territory meant he was free. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority opinion in the case. Taney ruled against Scott because, he claimed, African Americans were not citizens and therefore could not sue in the courts. Taney then addressed the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery in territory north of Missouri’s southern border:

“It is the opinion of the court that the Act of Congress which prohibited a citizen from holding and owning [enslaved persons] in the territory of the United States north of the line therein mentioned is not warranted by the Constitution and is therefore void.”
--from Dred Scott v. Sanford
Instead of removing the issue of slavery in the territories from politics, the Dred Scott decision itself became a political issue that further intensified the sectional conflict. The Supreme Court had said that the federal government could not prohibit slavery in the territories. Free soil, one of the basic ideas uniting Republicans, was unconstitutional.

Democrats cheered the decision, but Republicans condemned it and claimed it was not binding. Instead they argued that it was an obiter dictum, and incidental opinion not called for by the circumstances of the case. Southerners, on the other hand, called on Northerners to obey the decision if they wanted the South to remain in the Union.

Many African Americans, among them Philadelphia activist Robert Purvis, publicly declared contempt for any government that could produce such an edict:

“Mr. Chairman, look at the facts – here, in a country with sublimity of impudence that knows no parallel, setting itself up before the world as a free country, a land of liberty!, ‘the land of the free, and the home of the brave,’ the ‘freest country in all the world’…and yet here are millions of men and women…bought and sold, whipped, manacled, killed all the day long.”
--quoted in Witness for Freedom
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