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Origins of the Dred Scott Case

Origins of the Dred Scott Case: Jacksonian Jurisprudence and the Supreme Court, 1837-1857

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Origins of the Dred Scott Case
    Book Description:

    The Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision denied citizenship to African Americans and enabled slavery's westward expansion. It has long stood as a grievous instance of justice perverted by sectional politics. Austin Allen finds that the outcome of Dred Scott hinged not on a single issue-slavery-but on a web of assumptions, agendas, and commitments held collectively and individually by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and his colleagues. Allen carefully tracks arguments made by Taney Court justices in more than 1,600 reported cases in the two decades prior to Dred Scott and in its immediate aftermath. By showing us the political, professional, ideological, and institutional contexts in which the Taney Court worked, Allen reveals that Dred Scott was not simply a victory for the Court's prosouthern faction. It was instead an outgrowth of Jacksonian jurisprudence, an intellectual system that charged the Court with protecting slavery, preserving both federal power and state sovereignty, promoting economic development, and securing the legal foundations of an emerging corporate order-all at the same time. Here is a wealth of new insight into the internal dynamics of the Taney Court and the origins of its most infamous decision.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3664-0
    Subjects: Law, History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Beyond the Sectional Crisis
    (pp. 1-8)

    ON MARCH 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney secured his claim to infamy when he delivered the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Speaking for a fragmented majority composed of all five of the court’s southerners and two of their northern colleagues, Taney held that no African American had ever been or ever could be a citizen of the United States. He then declared that Congress possessed no authority to limit slavery’s expansion into the federal territories.¹ With that ruling, the Supreme Court inserted itself into the central political debates of the 1850s and helped push the...

  5. PART I Beneath Dred Scott:: Jacksonian Jurisprudence and the Dimensions of Self-Rule

    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 9-12)

      IN 1837, PRESIDENT ANDREW JACKSON delivered his final address to the American people. “In your hands is rightfully placed the sovereignty of the country, and to you everyone placed in authority is ultimately responsible.” “The great body of the people” held the power to ensure that its “wishes . . . are carried into faithful execution,” and its will “must sooner or later be obeyed.” Jackson did not engage in mere flattery; he gave his address at a time of considerable popular involvement in politics. For decades, state after state had lowered or abolished restrictions on white male suffrage. Although...

    • CHAPTER ONE Realizing Popular Sovereignty: Partisan Sentiment and Constitutional Constraint in Jacksonian Jurisprudence
      (pp. 13-35)

      OVER THE PREVIOUS TWO DECADES, complained the Southern Quarterly Review in 1850, the Supreme Court of the United States had suffered a “great and lasting change of the confidence, respect and veneration” it had once held among the public. “We have no doubt, the decay is . . . a necessary consequence of that great era and change in public sentiment of which General Jackson was the Great Pioneer.” President Andrew Jackson and his successor, Martin Van Buren, the Review charged, made a position on the court “the reward of political jobbing,” with “partisan zeal, and skill in political strategy”...

    • CHAPTER TWO Imposing Self-Rule: Professionalism, Commerce, Social Order, and the Sources of Taney Court Jurisprudence
      (pp. 36-51)

      “NOTHING BUT THE MOST STRINGENT enforcement of discipline, and the most exact and perfect obedience to every rule and order emanating from a superior,” Justice Robert C. Grier wrote in 1853 , “can insure safety to life and property.” Grier wrote these words when he found a railroad company liable for the injuries suffered by Elias H. Derby, who had jumped from one of the company’s locomotives before it collided with another company train headed in the opposite direction. Although the company’s agents had given an order to keep the track clear and the conductor of the second train admittedly...

    • CHAPTER THREE Evidence of Law: Popular Sovereignty and Judicial Authority in Swift v. Tyson
      (pp. 52-68)

      IN 1856, MONTGOMERY BLAIR, an attorney for Dred Scott and his family, struck at a weakness that the Taney Court’s aggressive pursuit of differing agendas in its common-law and constitutional cases had created. Although the Missouri Supreme Court had found the Scott family to be enslaved despite its members’ travels in free territory, Blair contended that the U.S. Supreme Court worked under no obligation to follow the Missouri ruling. Missouri’s decision, he wrote, “so far from being conclusive . . . is of no weight at all, beyond what is due to the research, reason and authority which the opinion...

  6. PART II Toward Dred Scott:: Slavery, Corporations, and Popular Sovereignty in the Web of Law

    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 69-74)

      IN HIS LETTERS TO HIS DAUGHTER, Justice Peter V. Daniel complained routinely. He regularly grumbled about the “rheumatism and hard work” that he endured while in Washington, but he also often criticized political developments. In 1849 , he described the beauty of Washington in the spring and then contrasted “the placidity and loveliness of these grounds” with “the selfish, angry stormy conflict going on within the building seated in the midst of them.” The conflict centered on the debate over slavery’s expansion into the western territories, which the recent U.S. conquest of northern Mexico had just renewed. Daniel could not...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Moderating Taney: Concurrent Sovereignty and Answering the Slavery Question, 1842–1852
      (pp. 75-97)

      IN 1852, FUTURE JUSTICE JOHN A. CAMPBELL expressed fear that the U.S. Supreme Court had become less protective of slavery. Although the court had stated ten years before that Congress held no authority to regulate the interstate slave trade, recent opinions by some justices “raised very painful apprehensions on this subject.” They hinted, Campbell maintained, that Congress could outlaw slave trading throughout the Union, just as it had recently done in the District of Columbia as part of the Compromise of 1850. Only secession could protect southern institutions from the court’s actions. A year earlier, however, abolitionist James G. Birney...

    • CHAPTER FIVE The Limits of Judicial Partisanship: Corporate Law and the Emergence of Southern Factionalism
      (pp. 98-115)

      IN 1856, THE RECENTLY APPOINTED Justice John A. Campbell, supported by his colleagues Peter V. Daniel and John Catron, issued a scathing dissent against the court’s decision in Dodge v. Woolsey. The court had just ruled that Ohio possessed no authority to abolish the tax exemptions it had previously granted to its banking corporations. Earlier decisions declared that Ohio could not change corporate tax rates through ordinary legislation, and now the court asserted that Ohio could not do so by amending its constitution. The court’s ruling, Campbell wrote, placed “this court between these corporations and the government and people of...

    • CHAPTER SIX The Sources of Southern Factionalism: Corporations, Free Blacks, and the Imperatives of Federal Citizenship
      (pp. 116-132)

      IN A CRITIQUE OF THE PASSENGER CASES , a correspondent for the Charleston Mercury argued that the Supreme Court had stripped South of laws that could bar free blacks recognized as citizens in northern states from coming into the region under federal protection. The Supreme Court, of course, had done no such thing. Indeed, abolitionist James G. Birney condemned the ruling in Strader v. Graham for precisely the opposite reason. Strader held that slave states need not recognize the freedom of enslaved African Americans who had spent time in free territory; such questions were best left to state discretion. By asserting...

  7. PART III Inescapable Opportunity:: The Supreme Court and the Dred Scott Case

    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 133-138)

      WHILE THE SUPREME COURT STRUGGLED with its southern faction over issues of corporate law, the sectional crisis reemerged in electoral politics. A few years of relative calm passed after politicians settled for the Compromise of 1850, but in 1854 Congress organized the Kansas and Nebraska Territories and allowed settlers to determine whether slavery would be permitted in their midst. Enabling settlers to exercise this “popular sovereignty” required that the Kansas-Nebraska Act repeal the thirty-year-oldMissouri Compromise restriction, which had closed to slavery the portion of the Louisiana Purchase Territory that lay outside the borders of Missouri and north of 36°30’ longitude....

    • CHAPTER SEVEN The Failure of Evasion: Dred Scott v. Emerson, Strader v. Graham, Swift v. Tyson, and Dred Scott v. Sandford
      (pp. 139-159)

      “HOW MUCH MORE WEIGHT of authority and general acquiescence this decision would have commanded,” Massachusetts lawyers Horace Gray and John Lowell briefly wondered in a lengthy critique of Dred Scott, “if the majority of the judges had confined themselves to the point necessary to the judgment.”¹ Gray and Lowell raised a valid point, for Chief Justice Roger Taney and his associates had an opportunity to dispose of the case on very narrow grounds, which would have allowed them to avoid ruling on the citizenship and territorial questions. Part of Dred Scott’s fact situation involved a Missouri master who took an...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT The Political Economy of Blackness: Citizenship, Corporations, and the Judicial Uses of Racism in Dred Scott
      (pp. 160-177)

      CHIEF JUSTICE ROGER B. TANEY RESPONDED to the failure of Strader with a jurisdictional ruling that denied Dred Scott access to federal courts on the basis of his race. No black person, whether slave or free could lay claim to U.S. citizenship because, at the time of the founding, blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The opinion was striking in its sheer excess. Taney devoted twenty-four of his fifty-five pages to a doctrinal and historical discussion of his position, and he embellished his argument with, by A. Leon Higginbotham’s count, twentyone separate references to...

    • CHAPTER NINE LookingWestward: Concurrent Sovereignty and the Answer to the Territorial Question
      (pp. 178-202)

      “IF DISUNION TAKES PLACE,” Massachusetts jurist Joel Parker wrote in 1861, “it will be occasioned . . . by this unhallowed interference . . . with the great political question of the day.” Parker referred to the court’s intervention into the territorial issue and its ruling that Congress possessed no authority to limit slavery’s expansion into the western territories. Critics immediately denounced the ruling as an illegitimate use of judicial power. “We have no longer a Constitution,” insisted Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis in his dissent, “we are under the government of individual who for the time being have power to...

  8. EPILOGUE United Court, Divided Union: Judicial Harmony and the Fate of Concurrent Popular Sovereignty
    (pp. 203-220)

    WITH DRED SCOTT, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney settled the internal divisions that had plagued the justices, but the decision also undermined the amoral union of concurrent popular sovereigns that the Taney Court had defended since its formation. Historians have repeatedly recounted the narrative of Dred Scott’s reception. Works by David Potter, Don E. Fehrenbacher, and Michael Morrison have told the story well, and there is no need to handle it in detail here.¹ The decision engendered mixed reactions in the press, generally along partisan lines, and the court—or, more accurately, its current membership—lost prestige in Republican circles....

  9. Note on Method
    (pp. 221-228)

    DRED SCOTT DEVELOPED WITHIN a dense network of concerns formed by the Taney Court justices’ differing agendas, anxieties, and senses of obligation, and this study employs an analytical framework that places the case in broad perspective. Although the preceding pages have described Dred Scott in its judicial context, the argument makes no effort to deny that the Supreme Court’s work was not, in many senses, political. Taney Court discourse formed a part of American political culture, and the justices drew heavily from the symbolic universe so carefully described by historians of the early American republic.¹ Like many other Americans before...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 229-252)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 253-266)
  12. Index
    (pp. 267-274)