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The Dred Scott Decision 2 Essay, Research Paper

The Dred Scott decision dealt a serious blow to the antislavery forces that hoped to keep slavery out of the Northern territories, particularly to Senator Stephen A. Douglas s doctrine of popular sovereignty, and also declared that no slave, nor descendant of a slave, could be a U.S. citizen. As a non-citizen, the court stated, Scott did not have rights, could not sue in a Federal Court, and must remain a slave. The decision also had a major effect in widening the political and social gap between North and South, and brought the nation closer to the brink of Civil War. The South rejoiced, and thus felt relief and vindication, for at last the “Southern opinion upon the subject of Southern slavery is now the supreme law of the land.” The abolitionists in the North were outraged. The uproar against the decision helped rather than hurt the antislavery cause and contributed to the Republican victory in the 1860 presidential election. The Supreme Court hoped the decision would end the controversy about the extension of slavery into the new territories. Instead, it just fanned the flames of abolitionism.

In 1857, Taney wrote the court s decision and knocked the antislavery factions on their heels. First, the court ruled that no black man, free or slave, was a U.S. citizen or had ever been a citizen. Therefore, a black man had no right to sue in a federal court and, for that matter, “Had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” Next, the court ruled that Congress never had the right to ban slavery in territories because the Constitution protected people from being deprived of life, liberty, or property. According to Chief Justice Taney, Congress had no power to forbid slavery in the colonies for two reasons: 1) the Constitution gave it only very limited power to legislate for the territories, and 2) slaves were property, and property owners were protected due to the 5th Amendment of the Constitution. Slaves, like goats or cows, were now seen as property and could be taken anywhere in U.S. jurisdiction.

The case might have been dismissed on the narrow ground that neither slaves nor free blacks had been classified as citizens, but Chief Justice Taney went on to make further observations. It was these observations that stirred up violent reactions throughout the country. Taney asserted that Dred Scott had not become a free man because of his residence in a territory that was declared free by the Missouri Compromise. Congress had exceeded its constitutional powers in passing that legislation. The Missouri Compromise was no longer a law. It had been repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but it had been in effect while Dred Scott lived in the Wisconsin Territory. This decision was the first since Marbury vs. Madison in which the Supreme Court had declared an act of Congress unconstitutional.

The concept of popular sovereignty was radically effected by the Dred Scott decision. If the Congress of the United States lacked authority to forbid slavery in a territory, how could a lesser body, the territory itself, do so? Stephen Douglas answered this question in the “Freeport Doctrine,” which he gave in Freeport, Illinois during a great debate with Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. He declared that slavery could not exist in any territory without local police regulations to protect it. The people of a territory could bar slavery, if they voted to do so, by refusing to enact such regulations. The interpretation angered the Southern Democrats and helped to split the party into Northern and Southern wings, thus leading to the election of the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. Popular sovereignty was thus abandoned because there was no need for a vote if the Supreme Court declared that slaves could be held anywhere.

The future of slavery in America was now inevitably going to meet its downfall. Anti-slavery leaders in the North cited the controversial Supreme Court decision as evidence that Southerners wanted to extend slavery throughout the nation and ultimately rule the nation itself. Southerners approved the Dred Scott decision believing Congress had no right to prohibit slavery in the territories. Abraham Lincoln reacted with disgust to the ruling and was spurred into political action, publicly speaking out against it. By losing the support of the future president, the southerners dug their own grave on the slavery issue. In the upcoming years, the Civil War would prove that the future of slavery was going to be a battle, especially after the Union changed its primary objective for fighting, now solely to the abolition of slavery.

In conclusion, the Dred Scott decision from the Supreme Court had a drastic effect on the status of slaves, the concept of popular sovereignty, and the future of slavery. Free blacks, as well as slaves, were now recognized as property. Popular sovereignty was deserted. The future of slavery in America at first, seemed as if it were going to remain an institution, but as time passed, it would be prohibited in the United States. Overall, the Dred Scott decision added fuel to the bitter sectional controversy, thus widening the political and social gap between North and South, and pushing the nation along the road to civil war.


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