Slavery, Law, and Politics: The Dred Scott Case in Historical Perspective

By Don E. Fehrenbacher | Go to book overview

3
Toward Judicial Resolution

When Cass, Taylor, and Van Buren were nominated for the presidency by their respective parties in May and June 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had confirmed Mexico's cession of the Southwest, and gold had been discovered in California. In Congress, the principal territorial problem continued to be Oregon, where American settlers were still living under an extra- legal provisional government that they themselves had established five years earlier. Southerners persisted in the strategy of holding Oregon as a hostage until the status of slavery in the Mexican Cession had been determined. Debate accordingly ranged over the whole embittered subject of congressional power and territorial policy.

Douglas, now chairman of the committee on territories in the Senate, introduced a new Oregon bill on January 10, 1848. One section declared that the existing laws of the provisional government (which included a ban on slavery) would remain in force until altered or repealed by the territorial legislature. The effect was to establish popular sovereignty, with every indication that it would mean the continued prohibition of slavery. This satisfied neither the vehemently antislavery senators, who wanted the prohibition made explicit in terms of the Northwest Ordinance, nor the militantly proslavery senators, who were unwilling to let

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