Dred Scott, an African-American slave, appealed to the Supreme Court for his freedom based on having been brought by his owners to live in a free territory. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, writing for the majority, wrote that persons of African descent could not be, nor were ever intended to be, citizens under the US Constitution, and thus the plaintiff Scott was without legal standing to file a suit. Taney infamously argued that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit…”
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) was one of the major events during that decade that brought on the Civil War in 1861. Widely condemned by opponents of slavery as an illegitimate use of judicial power, Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party accused the Taney Court of carrying out the orders of the “slave power” while conspiring with President James Buchanan.
After keeping silent on the Dred Scott decision for over three months, Lincoln addressed an audience in the Illinois House of Representatives in Springfield on 26 June. While Lincoln focused on responding to his political rival Democrat Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s defense of Dred Scott, Lincoln agreed with the two dissenters, Justices McLean and Curtis. While he showed deference to the Supreme Court, his criticism was that of a lawyer rather than purely a politician. He believed the court’s opinion was “erroneous” and the Supreme Court had often overturned erroneous decisions. Lincoln noted, “and we shall do what we can to have it to over-rule this. We offer no resistance to it.”
Lincoln charged that the decision was based upon a misunderstanding of constitutional history in claiming that African-Americans were explicitly excluded by the framers of the Constitution. Lincoln pointed to Justice Curtis’s dissent, “with so much particularity as to leave no doubt of truth” that free blacks voted in five of the original states and, in proportion to their numbers, “had the same part in making the Constitution that the white people had.”
And his attack against the Chief Justice’s assertion that the Declaration of Independence’s words “All men are created equal” were limited to white men only, was piercing, “I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal — equal in ‘certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This they said, and this they meant.”
While appealing to Republicans, Lincoln also reached out to Democrats, asking that they resist Taney’s interpretation of the Declaration as no more than “an interesting memorial of the dead past…thus shorn of its vitality, and practical value; and left without the germ or even the suggestion of the individual rights of man in it.” Lincoln insisted that the Declaration of Independence was written for all time and that the framers meant “to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.” He believed the Declaration of Independence was sacred and later called it an “apple of gold in a frame of silver [the Constitution].”
To Lincoln, Dred Scott guaranteed “the spread of the black man’s bondage.”
This is the first time Lincoln had publicly criticized a decision of the US Supreme Court, and, more particularly, a majority opinion of Chief Justice Taney on the race issue.
While fellow Republicans thought Lincoln was too meek in his response to Chief Justice Taney, and the Democratic press thought little of Lincoln’s speech, Senator Stephen A. Douglas knew from experience that Lincoln was a formidable adversary. With his attack on Dred Scott, Lincoln pounced on an issue that resonated politically in Illinois and throughout the Northern and Western states.
Their historical rankings are now fixed in history. While Abraham Lincoln remains a proverbial judge with both a head and a heart, Roger Taney fumbled as a judicial leader in this case and during the entire Civil War.
Heading image: Cover Sheet Summarizing Disposition of the Dred Scott Case by the US Supreme Court. National Archives and Records Administration. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Thank you sir for this piece. It shed even more light on what motivated President Lincoln. I will be sharing this with my friends.
“Widely condemned by opponents of slavery as an illegitimate use of judicial power, Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party accused the Taney Court of carrying out the orders of the “slave power” while conspiring with President James Buchanan.”
This sentence structure indicates that “Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party ” were “Widely condemned…as an illegitimate use”. The sentence needs to be reframed.
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