The Dred Scott Case
THE SUPREME COURT's decision in the Dred Scott case was surely the most controversial decision in the Court's history. Abraham Lincoln, who had a great interest in the issues before the Court, called it "an astonisher in legal history." Chief Justice Hughes, whose own Court would be involved in political controversy, described the decision as a "self-inflicted wound." The decision brought down upon the Court a "tempest of malediction" that, temporarily at least, greatly damaged the Court's prestige and reduced its power. 1
In many ways, the Dred Scott case is the prototype for the crises endured by the Supreme Court in later decades. As in later crises, the Court got into trouble by attempting to resolve a particularly sensitive, important, and divisive issue; the crisis, however, was short-lived and in the end presented no serious long-term threat to the Court's independence or autonomy. Along the way the Court played a major role in shaping and even catalyzing the larger national crisis of which Dred Scott was only one part. It is only in the context of that larger crisis that the decision can be properly understood.
Chief Justice Taney announced the Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford2 on 6 March 1857, exactly two days after the inauguration of James Buchanan as the fifteenth president of the United States. The case involved the claim for freedom of a slave named Dred Scott, who was at the time in the custody of his supposed master, John Sanford, a citizen of Missouri. Some years before, Scott's former master, John Emerson, had taken his slave with him to the state of Illinois and to the territory of