Origins of the Dred Scott Case: Jacksonian Jurisprudence and the Supreme Court, 1837-1857

Origins of the Dred Scott Case: Jacksonian Jurisprudence and the Supreme Court, 1837-1857

Origins of the Dred Scott Case: Jacksonian Jurisprudence and the Supreme Court, 1837-1857

Origins of the Dred Scott Case: Jacksonian Jurisprudence and the Supreme Court, 1837-1857

Synopsis

The Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision denied citizenship to African Americans and enabled slavery's westward expansion. It has long stood as a grievous instance of justice perverted by sectional politics. Austin Allen finds that the outcome of Dred Scott hinged not on a single issue-slavery-but on a web of assumptions, agendas, and commitments held collectively and individually by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and his colleagues.

Allen carefully tracks arguments made by Taney Court justices in more than 1,600 reported cases in the two decades prior to Dred Scott and in its immediate aftermath. By showing us the political, professional, ideological, and institutional contexts in which the Taney Court worked, Allen reveals that Dred Scott was not simply a victory for the Court's prosouthern faction. It was instead an outgrowth of Jacksonian jurisprudence, an intellectual system that charged the Court with protecting slavery, preserving both federal power and state sovereignty, promoting economic development, and securing the legal foundations of an emerging corporate order-all at the same time. Here is a wealth of new insight into the internal dynamics of the Taney Court and the origins of its most infamous decision.

Excerpt

ON MARCH 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney secured his claim to infamy when he delivered the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Speaking for a fragmented majority composed of all five of the court’s southerners and two of their northern colleagues, Taney held that no African American had ever been or ever could be a citizen of the United States. He then declared that Congress possessed no authority to limit slavery’s expansion into the federal territories. With that ruling, the Supreme Court inserted itself into the central political debates of the 1850s and helped push the United States toward civil war. Commentary on Dred Scott has invariably linked the decision to the sectional crisis that dominated American politics on the eve of the Civil War. Some critics have considered Dred Scott a legally correct ruling issued by a court that failed to understand the limits of its own authority, while others have viewed the decision as a hopelessly partisan ruling that was, in the words of Republican editor Horace Greeley, “entitled to just so much moral weight as would be the judgment of those congregated in any Washington bar-room.” Either way, these observers have assumed that sectional politics constituted the primary motivation behind the decision.

Contemporary understanding of Dred Scott owes much to the criticism developed by Republicans such as Greeley in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling, which in effect declared unconstitutional their stance against slavery’s expansion. As David Potter has noted, Republicans circumvented charges that they stood for “Revolution and anarchy,” in the words of one paper, by shifting their criticism away from the decision’s merits and focusing instead on the court’s failure to confine itself to the issues necessary to resolve the case. Republicans therefore contended that Taney and his asso-

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