I have written before about the infamous Dred Scott decision, which the Supreme Court handed down this week (March 6) in 1857. In that case the slave Dred Scott sued for his freedom, arguing that because his travels with his owner took him into free territories where slavery was banned, legally he was a free man. The Supreme Court, as we know, ruled otherwise. In this lesson I want to review the case in a larger context because the political ramifications of Dred Scott are virtually unequalled in our history.
In its decision, the court ruled that because Dred Scott was originally a slave, he was not a U.S. citizen, and therefore had no standing in a federal court, meaning he couldn’t sue in a federal court, meaning he remained a slave.
Had the court left it there, sticking with the technical and arguably (at the time) correct point that Scott’s lack of citizenship undermined his case, Dred Scott would never have achieved its notoriety. But the court went further, rendering the sweeping opinion that even if Scott could sue in a federal court he would have lost because the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which forbade slavery’s expansion into all new territories north of Missouri’s southern border (resulting in the free territories that Scott based his lawsuit on) was unconstitutional. Slaves were property, the court ruled, and under the Constitution Congress had no power to forbid citizens from taking their property anywhere they wanted.
Politically, the decision galvanized northerners, who had long complained about the Constitution’s “Three-fifths Clause,” in which slaves were counted as three-fifths of a white person when deciding a state’s population. Since a state’s population also determined the number of representatives a state sent to Congress, southern states had dominated both Congress and the presidency. In Dred Scott’s wake, northerners, especially northern Republicans, concluded that southern Democrats now also controlled the Supreme Court.
Equally important, the preeminent political issue of the day was whether the new territories the United States had acquired in the Mexican-American War were to become free or slave states. Northerners argued the former, southerners the latter, but many in the middle argued for “popular” sovereignty,” in which the people in those territories would decide the issue for themselves.
Yet the court’s Dred Scott decision said that neither the politicians nor the people would decide the issue. Just us judges.
Speaking of politics, the decision so inflamed a former politician — then practicing law — that he, Abraham Lincoln, became the first Republican to run for and win the presidency in the election of 1860. Lincoln’s election led to the Civil War, which trumped even the Supreme Court in deciding the slavery issue once and for all.