Resource: Dred Scott and Chief Justice Roger Taney
The Dred Scott decision of 1857 is one of the most significant stops on the way to the Civil War. There are basically two questions that one must get across in teaching this moment in history to get across its significance.
First, what was the legal justification used – what was the argument that they put forward and what would the ramifications of the decision have been.
Second, you need to think about why Americans felt the need to act as a result of the decision, what their rationale was, and to think about how they responded.
The one point that I want to prioritise today is something with ongoing relevance for the study of the US in almost any era. The Dred Scott decision was one that Chief Justice Taney, had been aiming to write for a long time. America was riven by the slavery question, particularly as relates to its extension into the territories. This was a chance to end that question and to allow the country to move on, on a surer legal footing.
However, Taney was an ageing man and one that had stayed on with the goal of defending the South that he loved. He had been born in slave-holding Maryland in 1777, and his legal career saw him make decision after decision upholding slavery, while he wrote privately of ‘Northern aggression’ towards the Southern way of life.
In his decision, Taney ignored several facts of law – as the dissenting comments from Custis and McLean pointed out. So, this decision cannot be viewed simply as black people not having rights because the time was less enlightened, but as a conscious choice to strip individuals of legal protections on the basis of race. Taney produced, in James McPherson’s words ‘a piece of judicial legerdemain that contradicted Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution’.
This has to be factored in, both to our understanding of the legal case for the decision – that it was, in fact, strongly informed by the personal feelings of the Chief Justice – but also to how we view the response of Americans at the time. Perhaps one final question that you can structure in for students is what is our responsibility – in a democratic system – when we can see the law being rewritten on the whim of an individual who holds office?