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Origins of the Dred Scott Case

Jacksonian Jurisprudence and the Supreme Court, 1837-1857

Austin Allen

Publication Year: 2006

The Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision denied citizenship to African Americans and enabled slavery's westward expansion. It has long stood as a grievous instance of justice perverted by sectional politics. Austin Allen finds that the outcome of Dred Scott hinged not on a single issue—slavery—but on a web of assumptions, agendas, and commitments held collectively and individually by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and his colleagues.

Allen carefully tracks arguments made by Taney Court justices in more than 1,600 reported cases in the two decades prior to Dred Scott and in its immediate aftermath. By showing us the political, professional, ideological, and institutional contexts in which the Taney Court worked, Allen reveals that Dred Scott was not simply a victory for the Court's prosouthern faction. It was instead an outgrowth of Jacksonian jurisprudence, an intellectual system that charged the Court with protecting slavery, preserving both federal power and state sovereignty, promoting economic development, and securing the legal foundations of an emerging corporate order—all at the same time. Here is a wealth of new insight into the internal dynamics of the Taney Court and the origins of its most infamous decision.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Series: Studies in the Legal History of the South

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pp. ix-x

I have incurred debts to numerous persons and institutions while working on this book. I can now attempt to repay them. Of the institutions, the University of Houston's History Department tops the list for providing me with the training and financial support that made this project possible. The Department of Social Sciences at the University of...

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Introduction: Beyond the Sectional Crisis

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pp. 1-7

On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney secured his claim to infamy when he delivered the Supreme Court's ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Speaking for a fragmented majority composed of all five of the court's southerners and two of their northern colleagues, Taney held that no African American had ever been or ever could be a citizen of the United...

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PART I: Beneath Dred Scott: Jacksonian Jurisprudence and the Dimensions of Self-Rule

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pp. 9-12

In 1837, president Andrew Jackson delivered his final address to the American people. "In your hands is rightfully placed the sovereignty of the country, and to you everyone placed in authority is ultimately responsible." "The great body of the people" held the power to ensure that its "wishes . . . are carried into faithful execution," and its will...

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1. Realizing Popular Sovereignty: Partisan Sentiment and Constitutional Constraint in Jacksonian Jurisprudence

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pp. 13-35

Over the previous two decades, complained the Southern Quarterly Review in 1850, the Supreme Court of the United States had suffered a "great and lasting change of the confidence, respect and veneration" it had once held among the public. "We have no doubt, the decay is . . . a necessary consequence of that great era and change in public sentiment of...

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2. Imposing Self-Rule: Professionalism, Commerce, Social Order, and the Sources of Taney Court Jurisprudence

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pp. 36-51

"Nothing but the most stringent enforcement of discipline, and the most exact and perfect obedience to every rule and order emanating from a superior," Justice Robert C. Grier wrote in 1853, "can insure safety to life and property." Grier wrote these words when he found a railroad company liable for the injuries suffered by Elias H. Derby, who...

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3. Evidence of Law: Popular Sovereignty and Judicial Authority in Swift v. Tyson

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pp. 52-67

In 1856, Montgomery Blair, an attorney for Dred Scott and his family, struck at aweakness that the Taney Court's aggressive pursuit of differing agendas in its common-lawand constitutional cases had created. Although the Missouri Supreme Court had found the Scott family to be enslaved despite its members' travels in free territory, Blair contended that...

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PART II: Toward Dred Scott: Slavery, Corporations, and Popular Sovereignty in the Web of Law

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pp. 69-73

In his letters to his daughter, Justice Peter V. Daniel complained routinely. He regularly grumbled about the "rheumatism and hard work" that he endured while in Washington, but he also often criticized political developments. In 1849, he described the beauty of Washington in the spring and then contrasted "the placidity and loveliness of these...

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4. Moderating Taney: Concurrent Sovereignty and Answering the Slavery Question, 1842–1852

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pp. 75-97

In 1852, future justice John A. Campbell expressed fear that the U.S. Supreme Court had become less protective of slavery. Although the court had stated ten years before that Congress held no authority to regulate the interstate slave trade, recent opinions by some justices "raised very painful apprehensions on this subject." They hinted, Campbell...

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5. The Limits of Judicial Partisanship: Corporate Law and the Emergence of Southern Factionalism

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pp. 98-115

In 1856, the recently appointed Justice John A. Campbell, supported by his colleagues Peter V. Daniel and John Catron, issued a scathing dissent against the court's decision in Dodge v. Woolsey. The court had just ruled that Ohio possessed no authority to abolish the tax exemptions it had previously granted to its banking corporations. Earlier...

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6. The Sources of Southern Factionalism: Corporations, Free Blacks, and the Imperatives of Federal Citizenship

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pp. 116-132

In a critique of the passenger cases, a correspondent for the Charleston Mercury argued that the Supreme Court had stripped the South of laws that could bar free blacks recognized as citizens in northern states from coming into the region under federal protection. The Supreme Court, of course, had done no such thing. Indeed, abolitionist James...

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PART III: Inescapable Opportunity: The Supreme Court and the Dred Scott Case

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pp. 133-137

While the supreme court struggled with its southern faction over issues of corporate law, the sectional crisis reemerged in electoral politics. A few years of relative calm passed after politicians settled for the Compromise of 1850, but in 1854 Congress organized the Kansas and Nebraska Territories and allowed settlers to determine whether slavery...

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7. The Failure of Evasion: Dred Scott v. Emerson, Strader v. Graham, Swift v. Tyson, and Dred Scott v. Sandford

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pp. 139-159

"How much more weight of authority and general acquiescence this decision would have commanded," Massachusetts lawyers Horace Gray and John Lowell briefly wondered in a lengthy critique of Dred Scott, "if the majority of the judges had confined themselves to the point necessary to the judgment." Gray and Lowell raised a valid point, for Chief...

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8. The Political Economy of Blackness: Citizenship, Corporations, and the Judicial Uses of Racism in Dred Scott

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pp. 160-177

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney responded to the failure of Strader with a jurisdictional ruling that denied Dred Scott access to the federal courts on the basis of his race. No black person, whether slave or free, could lay claim to U.S. citizenship because, at the time of the founding, blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." The...

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9. Looking Westward: Concurrent Sovereignty and the Answer to the Territorial Question

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pp. 178-202

"If disunion takes place," Massachusetts jurist Joel Parker wrote in 1861, "it will be occasioned . . . by this unhallowed interference . . . with the great political question of the day." Parker referred to the court's intervention into the territorial issue and its ruling that Congress possessed no authority to limit slavery's expansion into the western...

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Epilogue: United Court, Divided Union: Judicial Harmony and the Fate of Concurrent Popular Sovereignty

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pp. 203-220

With Dred Scott, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney settled the internal divisions that had plagued the justices, but the decision also undermined the amoral union of concurrent popular sovereigns that the Taney Court had defended since its formation. Historians have repeatedly recounted the narrative of Dred Scott's reception. Works by David...

Note on Method

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pp. 221-228


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pp. 229-252


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pp. 253-266


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pp. 267-274

E-ISBN-13: 9780820336640
E-ISBN-10: 0820336645
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820326535
Print-ISBN-10: 0820326534

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: Studies in the Legal History of the South

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Constitutional history -- United States -- Sources.
  • Scott, Dred, 1809-1858 -- Trials, litigation, etc.
  • Sanford, John F. A., 1806 or 7-1857 -- Trials, litigation, etc.
  • United States. Supreme Court -- History -- Sources.
  • Slavery -- Law and legislation -- United States -- History -- Sources.
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