On Friday morning, March 6, 1857--a crisp, clear day for residents of Washington, D.C.--public attention centered on a dusky, ground-level courtroom deep within the Capitol. Ordinarily, the Supreme Court carried on its business before a small audience and with only perfunctory notice from the press, but today the journalists were out in force, and the room was packed with spectators. A murmur of expectancy ran through the crowd and greeted the nine black-robed jurists as they filed into view at eleven o'clock, led by the aged Chief Justice. Recent acrimonious debate in Congress had once again failed to settle the sectional conflict over slavery in the federal territories, but the Court was now ready to issue an authoritative ruling on that subject and, incidentally, to decide the fate of a man named Dred Scott.
Neither of the two litigants was present in the courtroom. Scott remained at home in St. Louis, still a hired-out slave eleven years after he had taken the first step in his long legal battle for freedom. As for his alleged owner, John F. A. Sanford languished in an insane asylum and within two months would be dead. But then, both men had been dwarfed by the implications of their case and were now mere pawns in a larger contest.
Roger B. Taney, almost eighty years old, began reading from a manuscript held in tremulous hands. For more than two hours the audience strained to hear his steadily weakening voice as he