The Opinion of the Court
Historians have been preoccupied with counting noses to determine "what the Court really decided" in the Dred Scott case, and with evaluating the charge of "obiter dictum" leveled against the Court's most important pronouncement. Scholarly interest, in short, has centered on the question of how much of Taney's opinion was authoritative. Systematic analysis of the content of the opinion is remarkably scarce and largely limited to contemporary critiques published in 1857 or soon thereafter. Yet the Taney opinion is, for all practical purposes, the Dred Scott decision and therefore a historical document of prime importance. Consequences attributed to the decision are actually consequences of the opinion. And it was because of Taney's opinion that the Dred Scott decision constituted a landmark in the history of judicial review and cast the Supreme Court in a new role as the arbiter of current political controversy. Furthermore, the opinion can be read as a sectional credo no less revealing than Lincoln's House- Divided speech or a series of Greeley editorials. It is not only a statement of southern assumptions and arguments but also an expression of the southern mood--fearful, angry, and defiant--in the late stages of national crisis.
The fifty-five pages of Taney's opinion, as printed in Howard's Reports, were apportioned approximately as follows: