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This Week in History
March 3-9, 1857:
The Hidden Implications
of the Dred Scott Decision

March 2013

Dred Scott (1795 – 1858), painted by Louis Schultze.

In 1846, a decade before his case came before the U.S. Supreme Court, Dred Scott sued his owner's widow for his freedom, because his master had taken him to live for many years in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery had been prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Scott won his suit in St. Louis, but the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the decision. Then, his owner's widow married Dr. C.C. Chaffee, an abolitionist Congressman from Massachusetts, who decided to use Scott's suit as a test case. Agreeing to free Scott and his family no matter what the court decision, Chaffee "sold" Scott to his wife's brother, J.F.A. Sanford of New York, both because it was unseemly for an abolitionist to own slaves, and in order to obtain a different venue for the case and allow it to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

As Scott's case slowly wended its way from court to court, momentous events were building a tendency to make the United States, as Abraham Lincoln said, either all-slave or all-free. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, and in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, introduced by Stephen A. Douglas, virtually voided the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Just days before the Supreme Court rendered its decision on the Dred Scott case, Democrat James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, an aggressive supporter of the spread of slavery to Central and South America, was inaugurated President, after 11 Southern states refused to place the anti-slavery Republican candidate on their ballots, even though—or perhaps because—there was still substantial anti-slavery and pro-Union sentiment in the South.

Taney Strikes Against the Constitution

Then, on March 6, 1857, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney delivered the opinion of the pro-slavery majority in the Dred Scott case, stating that a Negro whose ancestors were slaves, was not entitled to the rights of a Federal citizen, and therefore had no standing in the court. Furthermore, going beyond the matter at hand, Taney added that Congress and the Territorial Legislatures had no power to prohibit slavery in the territories, and that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery in the Federal territories, was unconstitutional.

This thunderbolt caused great agitation, especially in the Northern states. The actions of the radical pro-slavery faction had made it clear over the previous decades that they controlled the Presidency, the Senate, and, when necessary, the House of Representatives, and now it was clear that they were ascendant in the Supreme Court as well. Lincoln had analyzed the radicals' control over the Presidency in a speech in October 1856:

"If a Southern man aspires to be President, they choke him down instantly, in order that the glittering prize of the Presidency may be held up on Southern terms to the greedy eyes of Northern ambition. With this they tempt us and break in upon us.

"The Democratic Party in 1844 elected a Southern President. Since then they have neither had a Southern candidate for election nor nomination. Their conventions of 1848, 1852, and 1856 have been struggles exclusively among Northern men, each vying to outbid the other for the Southern vote; the South standing calmly by, to finally cry, 'Going, going, gone' to the highest bidder, and, at the same time, to make its power more distinctly seen, and thereby to secure a still higher bid at the next succeeding struggle."

The Southern radicals aimed at a complete takeover of the Federal government. But failing that, they had a backup option: complete separation from the United States, aided and abetted by the radical Abolitionists, who were building a Northern movement for separation from the South in order to "purify" their moral standing. All this was eagerly pushed and supported by the monarchies of Europe, hell-bent on destroying the Temple of Liberty by any means possible.

Lincoln's Warning

Library of Congress
Roger Taney (later the infamous Chief Justice) drew up Jackson’s veto of the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. His role was aptly characterized by Congressman John Quincy Adams in 1834: “Resolved that the thanks of the House be given to Roger B. Taney, Secretary of the Treasury, for his pure and disinterested patriotism in transferring the use of the public funds from the Bank of the United States, where they were profitable to the people, to the Union Bank of Baltimore, where they were profitable to himself.”

When Abraham Lincoln was nominated for U.S. Senator by the Republican State Convention in Springfield, Illinois in June 1858, he warned the convention delegates, that although he thought they could save the Union, the present tendency was definitely toward establishing slavery everywhere in the nation.

"Let any one who doubts," he said, "carefully contemplate that now-almost-complete legal combination-piece of machinery so to speak—compounded of the Nebraska doctrine, and the Dred Scott decision. Let him consider not only what work the machinery is adapted to do, and how well adapted; but also, let him study the history of its construction, and trace, if he can, or rather fail, if he can, to trace the evidences of design, and concert of action, among its chief bosses, from the beginning."

He then quoted from the argument incorporated into the Kansas-Nebraska bill that stated,

"It being the true intent and meaning of this Act not to legislate slavery into any Territory or state, nor to exclude it therefrom; but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States."

Lincoln then said that

"What the Constitution had to do with it, outsiders could not then see. Plainly enough now, it was an exactly fitted niche, for the Dred Scott decision to afterwards come in, and declare the perfect freedom of the people, to be just no freedom at all."

And why, asked Lincoln, mention a state in the Kansas-Nebraska bill, when the bill dealt only with slavery in the territories?

"While the opinion of the Court, by Chief Justice Taney, in the Dred Scott case, and the separate opinions of all the concurring Judges, expressly declare that the Constitution of the United States neither permits Congress nor a Territorial legislature to exclude slavery from any United States territory, they all omit to declare whether or not the same Constitution permits a state, or the people of a State, to exclude it." -

'What We Have To Do'

"In what cases the power of the states is so restrained by the U.S. Constitution, is left an open question, precisely as the same question, as to the restraint on the power of the territories was left open in the Nebraska Act. Put that and that together, and we have another nice little niche, which we may, ere long, see filled with another Supreme Court decision, declaring that the Constitution of the United States does not permit a state to exclude slavery from its limits.... Such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful in all the states.

"Welcome or unwelcome, such a decision is probably coming, and will soon be upon us, unless the power of the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown. We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and we shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State. To meet and overthrow the power of that dynasty, is the work now before all those who would prevent that consummation. This is what we have to do."


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.