Lincoln on Race and Slavery

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Donald Yacovone et al. | Go to book overview

20

Speech at Springfield, Illinois:
CW, 2:403–409

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down its Dred Scott decision on March 6, 1857. Scott, a Missouri slave, claimed that since his owner had taken him to Illinois and to the Minnesota Territory where slavery did not exist, his status as a slave had ended. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney concluded that Scott had no right to sue for his freedom because as a “Negro” he was not a U.S. citizen and, thus, did not enjoy benefits deriving from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Neither the plaintiff nor any other African American, Taney explained in his famous dictum, had any “rights that white men were bound to respect.” The Court's decision not only rejected the idea of black citizenship but asserted that Congress possessed no right to ban slavery in the territories, voiding the 1820 Missouri Compromise. Nearly four months passed before Lincoln responded publicly to it. When he did so, the fighting in Kansas-Nebraska had just been put down by federal troops, and enraged Republicans across the North were denouncing the decision as a coup d'état aimed at expanding slavery and destroying their party. If the Supreme Court ruled that all property—including slaves—could be taken into the territories, how could anyone halt slavery's expansion? Ultimately, according to Lincoln, the Taney Court's decision would authorize slaveowners to take their “property” anywhere in the country, invalidating all state laws and constitutions banning slavery. The threat to American freedom, Lincoln believed, could not be greater. On June 7, Senator Douglas spoke in Springfield, praising the Court's decision as a vindication of his own stand and his controversial 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. He then damned the Republicans as promoters of miscegenation. Lincoln could not let Douglas's dangerous opinions and salacious charges stand. His June 26 response repudiated the Taney Court's decision and unwaveringly defended the principle that all of humanity

-92-

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