The Supreme Court and Slavery

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

Justice Samuel Nelson, a New Yorker appointed by President Tyler in 1845, was assigned to write the opinion for the court in Dred Scott.  The justices apparently discussed having Nelson’s opinion cite Strader, dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction, and hold that the Missouri Supreme Court had the final say over its own laws.  However, when it appeared that at least two members of the court planned to write a dissent claiming that Congress had the power to regulate slavery in the territories, the majority scrapped Nelson’s draft and reassigned the case to Chief Justice Taney to write a more comprehensive opinion. His decision, along with two strident dissents, was issued on March 6, 1857, two days after Buchanan’s inauguration.  The opinion contained six central holdings:

  1. Slaves were never intended to be included in the word “citizen” in the United States Constitution.  When the Constitution was written, slaves were considered an inferior and subordinate class.  
  2. The Constitution never was intended to be a vehicle for conferring on slaves the blessings of liberty or any of the personal rights provided for citizens.
  3. The Declaration of Independence never intended to include slaves as persons with unalienable rights.
  4. Scott clearly was not a citizen of any state and therefore the case was not between citizens of different states, and the courts had no jurisdiction under Article III.
  5. Congress cannot deprive a citizen of property merely because the citizen took the property into a particular part of the United States.  The right of property is expressly affirmed in the Constitution.
  6. An act of Congress that prohibits a citizen from owning slaves in any territory in the United States (namely, the Missouri Compromise) is void.  Therefore, Scott did not become free by residing in a free state. 

Chief Justice Taney Writes the Opinion of the Court

The Chief Justice contended that these holdings were compelled by the intent of those who had drafted and adopted the Constitution. Regarding enslaved persons, he concluded: 

No one, we presume, supposes that any change in public opinion or feeling, in relation to this unfortunate race, in the civilized nations of Europe or in this country, should induce the court to give to the words of the Constitution a more liberal construction in their favor than they were intended to bear when the instrument was framed and adopted. Such an argument would be altogether inadmissible in any tribunal called on to interpret it. If any of its provisions are deemed unjust, there is a mode prescribed in the instrument itself by which it may be amended; but while it remains unaltered, it must be construed now as it was understood at the time of its adoption. . . .[A]s long as it continues to exist in its present form, it speaks not only in the same words, but with the same meaning and intent with which it spoke when it came from the hands of its framers, and was voted on and adopted by the people of the United States. Any other rule of construction would abrogate the judicial character of this court, and make it the mere reflex of the popular opinion or passion of the day. This court was not created by the Constitution for such purposes. Higher and graver trusts have been confided to it, and it must not falter in the path of duty. 

Taney wrote such a far-reaching opinion, complete with a detailed historical analysis, apparently in the hope that the Supreme Court could resolve the slavery controversy in a manner that the American people would accept and could divert the Union from the path of destruction on which it seemed to have embarked.  Dred Scott, of course, did not accomplish that goal.  Rather, the constitutional interpretation offered in Taney’s opinion fueled the increasingly passionate debates over slavery and the meaning of the Constitution during the presidential election of 1860.  Abraham Lincoln, the candidate of the new Republican Party that was formed in the mid-1850s, won the election.  During the campaign, Lincoln expressed his opposition to the expansion of slavery into the territories.