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Dred Scott v. Sanford and President Buchanan

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  • 0:05 Dred Scott
  • 1:47 Supreme Court Rules
  • 5:03 Presidency of James Buchanan
  • 9:12 A Splintering Nation
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Steven Shirley
The Dred Scott decision was one of the most important turning points in the debate over slavery in the United States. It came during the presidency of James Buchanan, a man well qualified but ill suited for the job of keeping the nation together. This lesson discusses both as we attempt to understand the dynamics that led to the American Civil War.

Dred Scott

Tensions had been rising steadily for over a decade between the North and the South since the tenuous political peace that had existed after the Nullification Crisis (a conflict over state versus federal rights). This peace was now being tested in the Missouri and Kansas territories. Many in the North believed that the South had every intention of extending the peculiar institution of slavery as far as it could, and events to come at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857 further cemented this belief.

The Dred Scott decision, as it has come to be known, would set back the cause of free blacks, abolitionists and moral crusaders in the United States in ways not imagined before the decision was handed down. But to understand how and why, let us first look at how the Supreme Court came to hear the case.

Map of freed and non-freed slave states
Freed Nonfreed Slave States Map

In 1834, a white man by the name of Dr. John Emerson of St. Louis, MO, joined the army to serve as a surgeon. He was assigned to a duty station in Illinois and was later transferred to the Wisconsin Territory. He would then return to Missouri, and throughout this trek, he was accompanied by his slave, Dred Scott. After the death of Dr. Emerson in 1846, Scott and his wife Harriet, whom Scott had married while in Wisconsin with Dr. Emerson, befriended a lawyer and decided to sue in the courts of Missouri for their freedom. Their argument? Simple. They claimed residence in Illinois, where slavery was illegal, and also in Wisconsin, where the Missouri Compromise had been outlawed. If the court supported their cause, Scott and his wife would be free.

Supreme Court Rules

If only things were that simple. There were bigger issues at work behind the scenes with larger consequences for Dred and Harriet Scott. Among them was the question of whether Congress or local governments had the power to outlaw slavery in the territories. If they didn't, no slave could ever petition for their freedom in these territories; it would be a moot point. Things moved slowly in the courts - so slow in fact that after several years of litigation, Scott was sold to a new owner named John Sanford, causing a refilling of the case against Sanford. The case finally reached the Supreme Court of the United States on March 6, 1857, over ten years after the original lawsuit had been filed. Justice was anything but swift. Nonetheless, Scott was going to get his decision.

It wasn't positive. The court ruled that free or slave, blacks were not citizens. Therefore, Scott had no right to sue in federal court. In fact, he had no rights at all under the U.S. Constitution. He was not considered a citizen! The court continued by declaring that under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, the federal government could not deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of the law. But wait a minute. I bet you're asking, 'Isn't that what they were doing to Mr. Scott?' Indeed, but the court did not see him as the aggrieved party. Instead, the aggrieved party was the late Dr. Emerson, who had been deprived of his property - his slaves - by the Missouri Compromise!

Portrait of Dred Scott
Dred Scott Portrait

What is more, if Congress had no right to repeal slavery in the territories that were not yet states, how could the local governments in these territories do so? They couldn't, according to the Supreme Court. In fact, the decision made it so that nothing could be done to the institution of slavery until such time as these territories in our ever-expanding West became states. Until such time as they became states, slavery was as inviolate as the freedom of speech or religion or any civil liberty granted by the Constitution. In one fell swoop, it seemed the court was saying that slavery was not some small, regionalized, peculiar institution but instead a nationwide right that could only be abolished when states, not territories, passed laws to do so. It was a lot to swallow, not only for the defeated Mr. Scott, but for abolitionists across the entire country.

Northern critics of slavery could not escape the irony of the court's citing of the Bill of Rights to keep blacks in chains, and the institution of slavery seemed destined to extend from the South all the way to the new territories - even to the Pacific Ocean. Just as the Nullification Crisis had convinced many in the South that the political deck was stacked against them, the Dred Scott decision convinced many in the North that slavery was not going to be defeated politically; something else would be required. What was that something else? That was yet to be known, but things did not look good for the United States.

Presidency of James Buchanan

The lead up to the decision on the Dred Scott case was being watched closely by all politicians on all sides, including one future president, James Buchanan. His campaign had been one that featured a conciliatory tone and rhetoric, urging the nation and his supporters to wait. Wait for the Supreme Court decision on Scott, and respect it, no matter the outcome. Looking back through the prism of history, one can now see that this was a foolish statement to make, one of many missteps that haunted his presidency. What is more, it is one reason why President Buchanan did not - and does not - rate highly among most historians for being a great president. It also did not help that Buchanan came to the presidency at a time when the nation was rapidly changing, growing and dividing. He was the wrong man at the wrong time. Critics argue that Buchanan was too rigid in his application of constitutional principles, failing to see the realities around him, including the North's refusal to accept the growing institution of slavery and the destruction of the Whig Party, which gave rise to an ardent abolitionist party known as the Republicans.

President James Buchanan
President James Buchanan

But, who was this man, James Buchanan? Born in 1791, James Buchanan was a child of privilege. His wealthy family was from Pennsylvania and provided him with the best education that money could buy. Like many before him, he served in Congress, as well as secretary of state, a position that seemed to groom future presidents. His last service, under President Pierce, saw him serve as minister to Great Britain, and this kept him out of the bitter domestic disputes back in the United States. It also made him an ideal choice for the Democratic nomination for president in 1856. What his party couldn't see was his distance from these events made him particularly insensitive and perhaps a bit out of touch with the political realities within the country.

To his credit, Buchanan used all of his political skill to keep the peace. He was forced to walk a tight rope on the slavery issue. He believed that it was a matter for individual states to decide for themselves, and this stance earned him Southern support. His only real opponent in the election of 1856 - Senator John C. Fremont, the first Republican presidential candidate - favored the prevention of slavery in the western territories, and this set him at odds with Buchanan. The nation, though divided, put its trust in Buchanan's political expertise and experience, hoping that he could prevent war over the slavery issue. Buchanan received his first political setback two days after his inauguration, when the Supreme Court announced the Dred Scott decision. Republicans immediately denounced the decision, but as a presidential candidate, Buchanan had echoed his support for the court. As president, he had little choice but to back it.

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