Secession Era Editorials Project

The Decision in the Dred Scott Case.

Louisville, Kentucky, Journal [American]

(16 March 1857)

--We publish to-day abstracts of the opinions of the Judges of the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Dred Scott against Sanford. The importance of this decision in the highest legal tribunal established under our Federal Constitution is a sufficient reason for devoting to it so much of the space in our columns. The questions upon which these opinions have been rendered are among those which have shaken our Union from centre to circumference, and threatened imminently its dissolution. The points adjudicated are more strictly political than legal, and affect materially the status of political parties throughout the confederacy.

The Court, by Taney, Chief Justice, decided that the case was not within the jurisdiction of the Court, as the plaintiff was not a citizen, and had no right to sue in a Federal Court. This decision was concurred in by Judges Campbell, Catron, Wayne, Daniels, Nelson, and Grier. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Chief Justice Taney. Judges Nelson and Catron delivered separate opinions concurring in the decision, but arriving at it by a somewhat different course of reasoning. Judges McLean and Curtis delivered opinions dissenting, in conclusion and in detail, from the opinion of the majority of the Court.

The principal points in this decision are that a negro cannot, under the Constitution, become a citizen of the United States, that the power given to Congress to make all needful rules and regulations respecting the Territory or other property of the United States, referred exclusively to the Territory which belonged to the United States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution and can have no influence on Territory subsequently acquired; that the ordinance of 1787 was a compact between confederated colonies which was set aside by the adoption of the Constitution, and that by the provisions of the Constitution neither Congress nor a Territorial Legislature organized by authority of an act of Congress, has any right to prohibit slavery in the Territories, and that consequently the Missouri Compromise act of 1820, and the squatter sovereignty feature of the Kansas-Nebraska act are void for unconstitutionality.

In a strictly legal sense perhaps all of these questions were not properly before the court for adjudication, and all, except the decision that the court had no jurisdiction over the case of Dred Scott against Sanford, because Dred was not a citizen of the United States, may be considered as mere dicta and not strictly decisions of the court; but for all practical purposes they are equivalent to regular decisions upon adjudicated cases, as they indicate clearly what would be the decision of the court in any case directly presenting the questions which in this are simply incidental. However different this decision may be from the views entertained by a large portion of the people of the United States, it must be regarded as an authoritative exposition of constitutional law, emanating from the highest legal tribunal in the country, to whose decisions the people and the Government are bound to yield obedience and respect.

The importance of the decision is greatly enhanced by its immediate effect upon two of the great political parties of the country. At a single blow it shatters and destroys the platform of the Republican party. It annihilates the issue which was made paramount in the recent Presidential election, and takes away from the Democratic party all the advantages of its advocacy of popular sovereignty in the Territories. It leaves both of these great parties all abroad, without a single plank of their late platforms upon which to rest.

In the recent election, while the Republicans demanded the restoration of the Missouri compromise, the Democratic party strongly advocated the popular sovereignty doctrine incorporated in the Nebraska-Kansas act. They made this popular sovereignty doctrine the chief, and, in fact, the only, plank in their platform. They made it the paramount issue of the canvass. They eulogised it as "more ancient than free government itself," and contended most justly that the only truly constitutional method of disposing of the question of slavery in the Territories was to allow the people of the Territories themselves, while in a territorial condition, to decide whether they would establish or prohibit slavery therein. In the Inaugural address of Mr. Buchanan, delivered, we believe, only the day before the decision in this Dred Scott case was tendered, the Democratic President elect greatly eulogised this squatter sovereignty doctrine, "that the will of the majority shall govern the settlement of the question of domestic slavery in the Territories," and frankly admitted that it was upon this doctrine that the Democratic party had succeeded in the last election.

The voice of the President elect, admitting the position of the Democratic party in favor of squatter sovereignty, had hardly ceased to be echoed from the walls of the Capitol when this decision of the Supreme Court pronounced the new favorite doctrine of the Democracy unconstitutional. It has therefore become necessary for the formation of a new platform. What this will be has already been foreshadowed in the action of the Democrats in the United States Senate in reference to Bigg's amendment to the Minnesota bill, and the significant declaration in the inaugural address of Mr. Buchanan that "it is the imperative and indispensible duty of the Government to secure to every resident inhabitant the free and independent expression of his opinions by his vote." The alien suffrage and States' rights doctrine will be made the cardinal principles of the Democratic and Republican parties, and they will seek to avoid annihilation by a fusion of their failing fortunes.


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