Dred Scott


Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Dredd Scott

Dredd Scott

The first major eruption in Mr. Lincoln’s and the nation’s attitude toward slavery was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. The second major upheaval was the Supreme Court’s decision on the Dred Scott case. Psychohistorian Edward J. Kempf wrote: “In 1850, while the Supreme Court of Missouri had the Dred Scott case under advisement, Mrs. Emerson married Dr. Clifford Chaffee, of Springfield, Massachusetts, he was a member of Congress, elected as a Know-Nothing, and abolitionist. As the husband of Mrs. Emerson he held property rights in her slaves. The Chafees decided, apparently with the approval of Dred Scott and the support of abolitionist friends, to make an interstate test of the case and bring a suit under jurisdiction of a Federal Court. To effect this purpose Mrs. Emerson Chaffee sold Dred Scott to her brother John Sanford, then a resident of New York and Dred Scott brought suit again, repeating the claims made in the previous suit. The Court held that the claims of Scott were valid and that he was free. Whereupon the lawyers representing the Chaffee-Sanford interests and the Scott interests made up an agreed case of facts and submitted it to a trial by jury in the same Federal Court under the same Federal Judge. The judge then reversed his ruling and instructed the jury that Scott was still a slave of Sanford. Dred Scott’s attorneys then filed an appeal (December, 1854) in the United States Supreme Court, so worded as to call for a decision that would include judgment on Scott’s right to freedom, the legal rights of slaves, and the validity of the Missouri Compromise and the powers of Congress to regulate slavery. 1

Lincoln biographer Isaac N. Arnold said: ‘It was for decision at the following term in 1855-6, but the decision was postponed until after the Presidential election of 1856. The intense excitement which the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the outrages in Kansas had created, would have been greatly increased if the decision had been announced before the election, and it is quite probable that the result of the election would thereby have been changed.”2 A later Chief Justice, the late 20th century’s William H. Rehnquist, wrote: “The case was argued to the Court in the spring of 1856, but no decision was reached and it was set down for reargument in December 1856, a month after the presidential election. The case was reached as the court’s conference early in 1857, and originally a majority apparently agreed that there was no need to decided on the validity of the Missouri Compromise; it was enough to decide only that Missouri law governed the question of whether Dred Scott remained a slave. Since Missouri law held that he did, and all Justices agreed that a slave could not be a ‘citizen’ entitled to sue in federal court, the case could have been disposed of on relatively noncontroversial grounds.”3

But that was not the way the decision was handled. “Had the majority of the judges carried out their original intention, and announced their decision in the form in which Justice Nelson, under their instruction, wrote it, the case of Dred Scott would, after a passing notice, have gone to a quiet sleep under the dust of the law libraries. A far different fate was in store for it,” wrote Lincoln biographers John G. Nicolay and John Hay. “Before Judge Nelson’s opinion was submitted to the judges in conference for final adoption as the judgment of the court a movement seems to have taken place among the members, not only to change the ground of the decision, but also greatly to enlarge the field of inquiry.”4

“In an evil hour they yielded to the demands of ‘public interest,’ and resolved to ‘fulfill public expectation,'” wrote Nicolay and Hay in their ten-volume biography. “Justice Wayne ‘proposed that the Chief-Justice should write an opinion on all the questions as the opinion of the court. This was assented to, some reserving to themselves to qualify their assent as the opinion might require. Others of the court proposed to have no question, save one, discussed.'”5 In his opinion, Justice Roger B. Taney ruled:

In the opinion of the court [said he] the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument. It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted. But the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it.”6

The decision was tailor-made for conspiracy theorists. “A whispered exchanged between Chief Justice Taney and President Buchanan at the 1857 inaugural seemed a sinister reminder of the recent ‘collusion’ of Douglas and Pierce on the Kansas Nebraska Bill. ‘Stephen and Franklin and Roger and James,’ claimed Abraham Lincoln, had plotted to protect slavery in the territories.”7 Historians William and Bruce Catton wrote that there “were indications that Democratic leaders, including President Buchanan, had skirted dangerously close to the bounds of judicial propriety in bringing pressure on the Court for a territorial pronouncement in the Scott case. If prominent Democrats and the six majority Justices had avoided actual collusion – which many outraged Northerners refused to believe – there had been enough communication between Court and politicians during the Scott hearings to suggest that most of the Justices knew precisely what was expected of them.”8

The decision was excoriated by many Northerners. The New York Tribune editorialized that Taney’s decision “is entitled to just so much moral weight as would be the judgment of a majority of those congregated in any Washington bar-room.”9 Lincoln biographer Benjamin P. Thomas wrote: “Most virulent were the abolitionists of the Garrisonian school. Enraged at the Court’s pronouncement, they clamored for disunion more noisily than had the Southern fire-eaters. ‘No Union with slaveholders,’ cried Garrison; while Wendell Phillips declared the Union to be ‘accursed of God – away with it.’ Secession meetings were held in New England and elsewhere in the free states. Lincoln and other moderate Republicans who had been denouncing the secession spirit in the South were embarrassed to have it voiced so fiercely in the North.”10

Lincoln biographer Kenneth J. Winkle wrote that the decision “angered many northern Democrats, who hoped that the West would remain free through the action not of Congress but through actual settlers exercising their rights under the program of popular sovereignty. Douglas faced the dilemma of standing by President Buchanan and endorsing the decision or breaking with the Democratic administration to pursue popular sovereignty as a compromise position for settling the West.”11

Historian Benjamin P. Thomas wrote that Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas “was quick to see that the Supreme Court had not really spelled out just what a territory could or could not do to encourage or discourage slavery…Far from causing Douglas to surrender his belief in popular sovereignty, the Dred Scott decision made him cling to his pet doctrine all the harder and started him on the tortuous course of trying to adapt it to the changed legal climate.”12 Even before the Dred Scott decision was announced, Mr. Lincoln was thinking about its potential impact on public policy. In January 1857 Mr. Lincoln apparently drafted some ideas for a speech

What would be the effect of this, if it should ever be the creed of a dominant party in the nation? Let us analyze, and consider it.

It affirms that, whatever the Supreme Court may decide as to the constitutional restriction on the power of a territorial Legislature, in regard, in regard to slavery to the territory, must be obeyed, and enforced by all the departments of the federal government.

Now, if this is sound, as to this particular constitutional question, it is equally sound of all constitutional questions; so that the proposition substantially, is ‘Whatever decision the Supreme court makes on any constitutional question, must be obeyed, and enforced by all the departments of the federal government.’

Again, it is not the full scope of this creed, that if the Supreme court, having the particular question before them, shall decide that Dred Scott is a slave, the executive department must enforce the decision against Dred Scott. If this were it’s full scope, it is presumed, no one would controvert it’s correctness. But in this narrow scope, there is no room for the Legislative department to enforce the decision; while the creed affirms that all the departments must enforce it. The creed, then, has a broader scope; and what is it? It is this; that so soon as the Supreme court decides that Dred Scott is a slave, the whole community must decide that not only Dred Scott, but that all persons in like condition, are rightfully slaves13

According Douglas biographer Damon Wells , Senator Douglas “was quick to see that the Supreme Court had not really spelled out just what a territory could or could not do to encourage or discourage slavery…Far from causing Douglas to surrender his belief in popular sovereignty, the Dred Scott decision made him cling to his pet doctrine all the harder and started him on the tortuous course of trying to adapt it to the changed legal climate.”14 Mr. Lincoln not only excoriated the decision, he also excoriated Senator Douglas for supporting it.

Historians William and Bruce Catton wrote that “Twice Lincoln added his voice to the strident chorus of Northern protest over Dred Scott, and the content of his speeches showed that genuine moral concern had not dulled his political instincts.”15 On June 26, 1857, Mr. Lincoln spoke at the State House in Springfield in response to a speech which Senator Stephen Douglas had given there earlier in the month. The pro-Lincoln Chicago Tribune reported:

“The Hon. Ab. Lincoln opened his great speech here a few minutes after eight o’clock p.m., in the hall of the House of Representatives. His speech was an answer to Senator Douglas. The hall was filled comfortably full, and the intense interest with which Republicans, the Bogus Democracy and others listened to every sentence – every word – testifies to the abiding interest felt in the subject and to the power of logical truths – truths welded together by the power of logic. There was no rant – no fustian – no bombast, but there was something in it of more force and power than these; the heart felt, and he gave utterance to the heart inspirations, clothed in the eternal maxims of the purest reasons. Mr. Lincoln divided his subject into three heads.

1. He addressed the people for about half an hour on the affairs of Kansas, stating that nothing but bold wicked despotism ruled or reigned there since it was organized into a Territory. ‘Well might Mr. Douglas slip slyly over this part of his case, as if he heard nothing of Kansas. Let him but look over into the western horizon and see the heavens lit up by the glories of Squatter Sovereignty, which Douglas had so backed down from. Look, Douglas, and see yonder people fleeing – see the full columns of brave men stopped – see the press and the type flying into the river!and tell me what does this? It is your Squatter Sovereignty, and you have now backed down from the principle. The people there cannot vote, and you ought to know it if you do not.”16

After dealing with the issue of Mormons in Utah, according to the Chicago Tribune, “Mr. Lincoln then took up the Dred Scott case, and handled it as only Lincoln can. Douglas had said that the glorious, immortal fathers of 1776 could not be defended from the charge of asses and liars, when they said in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, unless it should be limited to Englishmen in terms, and not generally to all men. Mr. Lincoln analyzed it – dissected Douglas’s idea, and held up to the gaze of the crowd the skeleton Douglas would have. He made that presented by Douglas grin and menace tyranny, despotism, divine right of kings, aristocracy, and us, whipped and chained slaves. ‘What,’ said Mr. Lincoln, ‘would become of that noble band of liberty-loving, philosophical, patient and patriotic Germans? What of the energetic, law and order Englishmen, the genuine, country-loving Scotchmen, the Frenchmen – the world, if Mr. Douglas’s idea were to prevail, that the Declaration is not true? Away, away, away! With the cursed thought! It dissembles, it cheats and leads downward, dragging the nation in chains after it.'”17

The New York Tribune reported that Mr. Lincoln “declared that he believed as much as Douglas in obedience to and respect for the judicial department of Government; but he knew that the court which made the decision referred to had often overruled its own decisions, and he meant to do what he could to have it do so in this instance. No ‘resistance’ was offered. This decision was wanting in any claim to public confidence, and it is not ‘resistance,’ it is not factious, or even disrespectful, to treat it as not having quite established a settled doctrine for the land. The Dred Scott decision was in part at least based upon historical facts, which were not really true; among others the assumption by Chief Justice Taney that the public estimate of the black man is more favorable now than it was in the days of the Revolution, is a mistake.”18 The reporter concluded that Mr. Lincoln’s speech “was a masterly effort, and a complete refutation of the sophistries of Douglas, and was listened to with deep interest by a large and respectable audience assembled in Representatives’ Hall.”19

According to Lincoln biographer Albert Beveridge, “It was a grand speech, said the State Journal three days later, ‘overwhelming,’ unbeatable, Douglas’s ‘sophistries,’ were utterly crushed. The State Register, on the other hand, was mildly contemptuous; Democrats who heard Lincoln smiled broadly and congratulated one another, it said, while the ‘black republicans’ looked ‘woebegone.’ Lincoln had stated that Douglas had spoken to ‘controvert’ his opinions: let Lincoln subdue his vanity. Douglas never had a thought of Lincoln’s views when he made his speech, and ‘did not know or care whether Mr. Lincoln had any opinion at all or not.’ Lincoln had ‘large expectations’ of succeeding Douglas as Senator; but asked the Democratic organ, could ‘a single individual,’ not wholly a partisan, who had heard the two men, be ‘willing to supersede Judge Douglas with Mr. Lincoln?'”20

Lincoln chronicler Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., wrote: “In June 9 of 1857 both Douglas and Lincoln give speeches concerning the Supreme Court decision. First Douglas argues for popular sovereignty in the new territories and interprets the clause ‘all men are created equal’ from the Declaration of Independence as a reference ‘to the white race alone, and not to the African.’ Lincoln believes the decision by the predominately Southern justices is wrong. He sees terrible dangers being set loose if the Declaration of Independence is to be reinterpreted so.”21

Douglas biographer Robert W. Johannsen wrote, “As soon as Douglas had completed his speech, the call was raised for an address in reply. Abraham Lincoln, who had been in the audience when Douglas spoke, came forward, and two weeks later he answered Douglas in the state statehouse hall. ‘It will be an answer,’ Lincoln’s law partner had promised. ‘Lincoln is a gentleman; Douglas is…an unscrupulous dog.” In his rejoinder, Lincoln was indeed the gentleman. His calm, effective discussion of the issues which Douglas had raised contrasted with the usual Republican onslaughts.”22

Douglas biographer Gerald M. Capers wrote that Douglas and Mr. Lincoln reviewed “the conflicting arguments of the judges in long speeches to their constituents. They did so chiefly with their approaching contest for the Senate in mind, and before the struggle over Kansas reached it climax. Their speeches contained practically everything that each had to say about equality, the Declaration, the Constitution, and the court. Indeed, the more famous debates between them the following year were but forensic repetitions of the points they had already made and had attempted to refute.”23 Douglas biographer Robert W. Johannsen wrote: “In all the tumult that followed Douglas’ speech, Lincoln’s criticism stood out, and Douglas must undoubtedly have been impressed by it. I was a foretaste of what he would have to face in 1858. Lincoln’s ambition to succeed Douglas in the Senate was well known, and some commentators felt that the senatorial contest had begun in Springfield a year early.”24


  1. Edward J. Kempf, Abraham Lincoln’s Philosophy of Common Sense: An Analytical Biography of a Great Mind, p. 502.
  2. Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 131.
  3. William H. Rehnquist, All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime , All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime, p. 29.
  4. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume II, p. 67.
  5. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume II, p. 71.
  6. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume II, p. 74-75.
  7. Richard H. Sewell, Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States, 1837-1860, p. 60.
  8. William and Bruce Catton, Two Roads to Sumter, p. 138.
  9. William H. Rehnquist, All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime , All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime, p. 30.
  10. Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, p. 173.
  11. Kenneth J. Winkle, The Young Eagle: The Rise of Abraham Lincoln, .
  12. Damon Wells, Stephen Douglas: The Last Years, 1857-1861, p. 114.
  13. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 388 (January 1857).
  14. Damon Wells, Stephen Douglas: The Last Years, 1857-1861, p. 114.
  15. William and Bruce Catton, Two Roads to Sumter, p. 138.
  16. Herbert Mitgang, editor, Lincoln as They Saw Him, p. 85-86 (Chicago Tribune, June 27, 1857).
  17. Herbert Mitgang, editor, Lincoln as They Saw Him, p. 86 (Chicago Tribune, June 27, 1857).
  18. Herbert Mitgang, editor, Lincoln as They Saw Him, p. 83-84 (New York Tribune, June 30, 1857).
  19. Herbert Mitgang, editor, Lincoln as They Saw Him, p. 84-85 (New York Tribune, June 30, 1857).
  20. Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1858, Volume II, p. 517.
  21. Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., A New Birth of Freedom: Lincoln at Gettysburg, p. 145.
  22. Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas, p. 573.
  23. Gerald M. Capers, Stephen A. Douglas Defender of the Union, p. 151-152.
  24. Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas, p. 574.