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 Congress had repealed the Missouri Compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska Act three years earlier, but the decision now challenged popular sovereignty.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.
The third crisis of Buchanan’s first half year in office, a financial crisis, broke in August 1857. It was brought on by a reduction in demand for American grain caused by the end of the Crimean War (1854-1856), a surge in manufacturing that outran the growth of markets, and the continued weakness and confusion of the state banknote system. Failure of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company on August 24, 1857, precipitated the panic, which was followed by a depression from which the country did not emerge until 1859.
Everything in those years seemed to get drawn into the vortex of sectional conflict, and business troubles were no exception. Northern businessmen tended to blame the depression on the Democratic Tariff of 1857, which had set rates on imports at their lowest level since 1816. The agricultural South weathered the crisis better than the North. Cotton prices fell, but slowly, and world markets for cotton quickly recovered. The result was an exalted notion of King Cottons’ importance to the world, an apparent confirmation of the growing argument that the southern system was superior to the free-labor of the North.
Three other states followed Virginia in little over a month: Arkansas on May 6, Tennessee on May 7, and North Carolina on May 20. All four of the holdout states, especially Tennessee and Virginia, had areas (mainly in the mountains) where both slaves and secessionists were scarce and where Union support ran strong. In Tennessee the mountain counties would supply more volunteers to the Union than to the Confederate cause. Unionists in western Virginia, bolstered by a Federal army from Ohio under General George B. McClellen, contrived a loyal government of Virginia that formed a new state. In 1863 Congress admitted West Virginia to the Union with a constitution that provided for gradual emancipation of the few slaves there.
The document proclaimed the self-evident truth that “all men and women are created equal, and the attendant resolutions said that all laws that placed women "in a position inferior to that of men, are contrary to the greet precept of nature, and therefore of no force or authority." Such language was too strong for most of the thousand delegates, and only about a third of them signed it. Ruffled male editors lampooned the women activists as being "love-starved spinsters" and "petticoat rebels." Yet the Seneca Falls gathering represented an important first step in the evolving campaign for women’s rights.