One hundred and sixty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued one of the most significant rulings in its history. Unfortunately for the Court and the country, it was also one of the most misguided decisions it ever issued. Dred Scott was an African American slave whose owner, army surgeon Dr. John Emerson, had taken Scott to numerous postings over the years in northern states and territories like Illinois and Wisconsin. John Emerson died in 1843. In 1846, Scott attempted to purchase freedom for himself and his family; Emerson’s widow, Irene, refused. Scott, advised by numerous abolitionist lawyers, brought suit against Irene Emerson in court. This was the beginning of the legal case that eventually became Scott v. Sanford, on which the Supreme Court ruled 160 years ago. John Sanford of St. Louis, the brother of Irene Emerson, owned Dred Scott from the early 1850s on after Mrs. Emerson moved from the slave state of Missouri to the free state of Massachusetts.
The case wound through several lower courts before making its way to the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a Maryland native and slave owner, wrote the majority opinion for the Court’s 7-2 decision. Taney’s opinion, however, went far beyond the scope of merely ruling against Dred Scott. Taney opined that black people were “altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” Blacks were not citizens, in Taney’s view, and therefore had no legal right to sue in court. By Taney’s logic, Dred Scott’s case was illegitimate from the start and should never have been heard in the first place.
However, that did not stop Taney from arguing that the question of Scott being free by virtue of having lived in a free state or territory was also illegitimate because Congress did not have the constitutional power to prohibit slavery in territories. This was based on the argument that Congress’s power to prohibit slavery was limited to the Northwest Territories specifically declared free by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. That congressional power to prohibit slavery did not exist for territories acquired via the Louisiana Purchase (or, for that matter, land acquired during the Mexican-American War settlement). When Dr. John Emerson took Dred Scott into Illinois, he took the enslaved Scott into a state declared free of slavery by the Northwest Ordinance. When Emerson took Scott to Wisconsin, though, they entered a territory mostly acquired in the Louisiana Purchase, but still made free by the Missouri Compromise. None of this mattered, according to Taney: since Scott’s owner was a permanent resident of Missouri—a slave state—that made Scott a Missourian, too.
Lastly, Taney stated that the Fifth Amendment’s provision that no citizen could be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law” superseded any law that would deny a slave owner his right to private property, whether that property was livestock or other human beings. Simply moving into an area in which slavery was barred did not alter the Fifth Amendment property rights to which a slave owner was entitled.
Taney hoped this decision would settle the argument about slavery in the United States once and for all, but instead the decision galvanized many anti-slavery elements in the North. It gave the young Republican party motivation to organize in time for the 1858 midterm elections and the 1860 presidential election. The decision drove many into the Republicans’ ranks.
Though few knew it at the time, incoming President James Buchanan wrote to at least two different Supreme Court justices to ask about the case and pressure the Court to have at least one northerner concur with the majority opinion so the decision would not appear to be a sectional one. Buchanan shared Taney’s misguided hope that the decision would settle the uproar about slavery. His behind-the-scenes dealings in the case were improper at best and illegal at worst. In his inaugural address, Buchanan stated that the slavery question would soon “be speedily and finally settled” by the Supreme Court’s decision. Most historians now believe that Buchanan, inaugurated just two days before the Court’s decision, already knew what the majority opinion would be.
The Dred Scott decision is understandably one of the most reviled Supreme Court decisions in history. It was only the second time in American history (Marbury v. Madison being the first) that the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional. It was viewed as a victory in the South but seen as a wake-up call for abolitionists and Republicans in the North. “All who love Republican institutions and who hate Aristocracy,” read an editorial in the Albany Evening Journal, “compact yourselves together for the struggle which threatens your liberty and will test your manhood!”
A little over a year after the Dred Scott decision, Abraham Lincoln, his passion for politics reignited since the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise, gave his famous “House Divided” speech accepting the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate from Illinois. “We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free,” he said, “and we shall awake to the reality instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.” Lincoln went on to say that “a house divided against itself cannot stand”: that the nation could not continue half-slave and half-free. “I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.” The war to determine which “thing” it would be was coming, and Lincoln was to play a pivotal role—but not as a Senator from Illinois.