Secession Era Editorials Project
The Decision in the Dred Scott Case.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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