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The Dredd Scott Decision

Updated November 1, 2018

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.. ghts and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them. [Mason, 68] Finally, and almost contradicting in his previous statements, he asserted that if a slave was taken to a free state or territory and then voluntarily returns to the slave state, then he or she will remain a slave. Here, however, one would think that the term voluntarily would not be accurate in describing the reasons why Scott returned to Missouri, being that he was a slave.

Taney again uses Strader v. Graham when he discusses how Scott’s status was affected by his residence in Illinois [Hall, 797]. He stated that if Scott had sued in Illinois, under Strader, that state could have freed him. However, since Scott sued in Missouri, his residency in Illinois could not force the Missouri Supreme Court to set him free.

To many, this case was Taney’s attempt to settle the issue of slavery once and for all in favor of the South. He had hoped to, in this decision, destroy the new Republican party, which so threatened slavery[Hall, 797]. His attempt to do this, however, backfired. THE DISSENTERS This case was split 7 to 2, mostly on ideological lines.

The two dissenters to Taney’s opinion were Justice John McLean of Ohio and Justice Benjamin r. Curtis of Massachusetts. It was Curtis in particular who disagreed with Taney on just about every point. Curtis said that even before the Constitution was written, there were free blacks who were citizens in at least five states and thus were citizens of the United States at the time the Constitution was adopted. Being that there was no federal citizenship clause in the Constitution, the states therefore had created federal citizens automatically by merely becoming a state. Curtis also asserted, in response to Taney’s claim that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, that Congress has some power to institute temporary Governments over the territory [Hall 797], because the areas out West were not states yet, merely territories, which was different than a state in many respects, particularly that they had no real central government.

Specifically, Curtis pointed to no less than fourteen different instances before the Missouri Compromise in which congress had regulated slavery in the territories. Due to this, congress had the power to enact the compromise merely by settled practice[Hall, 212] and therefore Scott’s residence in the areas governed by that congressional legislation had made him a free man[Hall, 212]. It was this case that so upset Justice Curtis with his colleagues that he resigned shortly after the opinion was published. He then returned to Boston to practice law and actually argued several significant cases before the Court after the Civil War. PUBLIC REACTION AND AFTERMATH The reaction in the North was one of complete and utter outrage.

This infuriated abolitionists all over the country and many saw it as a miscarriage of justice. In particular, New York Tribune editor and famous abolitionist Horace Greeley, who wrote that Taney’s decision was a collection of false statements and shallow sophistries a detestable hypocrisy and a mean and skulking cowardice[Catterall, 96]. Further, Taney’s attempt to destroy the newly formed Republican party only further strengthened their efforts in the North when their platforms in the 1858 and 1860 elections centered around this case. One notable Republican, Abraham Lincoln, convinced many voters that Taney’s opinion was part of a proslavery conspiracy to nationalize slavery[Hall, 798]. He tried to convince many that this case was the first step towards the Supreme Court forcing slavery upon the North.

He stated in another speech: We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their state free; and we shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave state.[Donald, 202] One of Taney’s opinions that particularly enraged the northern abolitionists was his statements regarding the absence of rights for the entire black race, not only slaves. This argument was completely unnecessary in this case an only displayed to many Taney’s blatant distaste not only for blacks but for the North and their anti-slavery attitudes. In other words, regarding the text of the case, there was no reason for Taney to include the entire black race in such a specific case regarding the freeing of just one slave. There is no doubt that this case was a major influence in the cause of the American Civil War. The North was so outraged with this opinion that it chose to ignore the Court altogether and regard as an almost alien institution. The South, in response to the Northern discontent, attempted to defend the case, which ultimately only lead to further hatred and increased partisanship that undoubtedly contributed greatly to the Southern fuel for the war for secession.

CONCLUSION In conclusion, the Dred Scott case was absolutely the most controversial case prior to the Civil War – and perhaps all of American history. After Taney’s opinion was published, many now felt that the issue of slavery would never procure a compromise. To many this decision was the first embodiment of a pro-slavery judicial conspiracy and this no doubt caused a violent reaction. This decision, due to the political and social ramifications it had, could not have ever in America’s history come at a worse time.

In the 1850’s what the country needed was guidance and compromise, but instead they only found in the institution of the Supreme Court an uncompromising defense of an explosive issue. In this case, the justices should have considered more thoroughly public opinion and the possible consequences of the Court’s actions. In hindsight, many scholars consider this decision to be perhaps the worst decision ever rendered by the Supreme Court. Not only was it decisively partisan, but it played an enormous role in the provoking of the Civil War, the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil. This case was overturned by the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery altogether, and the 14th Amendment, which pronounced all persons born in the United States to be citizens of the U.S. regardless of color or previous condition of servitude.

Also, this case was the first to employ the substantive due process clause which would be referred to again later in many other cases. AREAS FOR FURTHER STUDY There was one specific issue that puzzled me, and I confess I was unable to find any adequate answer to the query. I am referring to how a slave, in this case Dred Scott, was able to marry another slave, Harriet Robinson, in the free territory of Wisconsin, which was well above the 36 degree 30 minute line. Why was she a slave at all? Hadn’t the Missouri Compromise, still constitutional in the 1830’s, eliminated slavery there? Or perhaps she was not technically a slave at all but a free black living in that territory, then why would she marry a slave? And if she did, why would she then fall under the ownership of Dr.

Emerson if she had already been freed? This is an area I would suggest further research be employed so that our understanding of the slavery situation in the territories at this time be more fully enhanced. American History Essays.

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The Dredd Scott Decision. (2018, Nov 19). Retrieved from