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Political Atheism: Dred Scott, Roger Brooke Taney, and Orestes A. Brownson

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 88, Number 2, April 2002
pp. 207-229 | 10.1353/cat.2002.0072

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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 207-229


The Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision in early March of 1857 inflamed the national debate over slavery and deepened the divide that led ultimately to the Civil War. The decision has been analyzed repeatedly by historians and legal scholars, and has created divergent opinions on what was legally decided and what was merely obiter dictum, and on whether the case was influenced more by politics than by law. Many historians claim that the decision destroyed the Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney's (1777-1864) reputation as a legal scholar and weakened the authority of the Supreme Court in its immediate aftermath. Little noticed in the literature on the case is the debate that took place in the American Catholic community after the decision. Contemporaries and historians alike at times called attention to the fact that Taney was a Maryland Catholic, and some anti-Catholic religious newspaper editors in the North singled out his religious identification as one of the reasons for his ex cathedra decision in favor of slavery. On the whole, though, few contemporaries or historians paid any attention to the divergent American Catholic reactions to the decision, nor to the debate among Catholic journalists and newspaper editors on the wider issue of the relationship of religion and politics that the decision triggered in the Catholic community. This paper focuses upon the religious issue that some Catholics saw in Dred Scott.

In 1846 Dred Scott, a slave living in St. Louis, maintained in a Missouri state court that he, his wife, and his two children were legally entitled to their freedom because they had sojourned in a free state (Illinois) and in free territory (Minnesota). In 1854 Scott's suit for freedom was brought before the United States Supreme Court asking for a reversal of a District Court's decision declaring him still a slave. The case was argued and reargued before the Supreme Court in 1856, and, after the March, 1857, inauguration of Democrat James Buchanan as president of the United States, the Court announced its decision. Taney delivered the opinion of the Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford, arguing that Scott was not only a slave but that he was also not a citizen of the United States and therefore could not legitimately sue in a federal court of law, that no Negro (free or slave) could be a citizen of the United States, and that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the territories (and, thus, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional). Two of the nine justices, Justices John McLean and Benjamin R. Curtis, offered extensive and vigorous dissenting opinions. The decision was well received by the majority in the South, the pro-slavery part of the Democratic party, and a few editors of Democratic papers in the North. It was rejected and attacked by the newly organized Republican party, the abolitionists, a significant number of editors of religious newspapers in the North, and by anti-slavery Democrats.

The American Catholic community, too, was divided in reacting to the decision. The primary issues for those Catholics who expressed an opinion about the case revolved around the arguments and language Taney used to declare that the Constitution did not intend to include Negroes as citizens of the United States. He based his view upon an historical interpretation of attitudes toward Negroes, arguing that the original intent of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, when interpreted within the context of the times in which they were written, excluded Negroes from citizenship—they were not conceived of by the founding Fathers as part of the "people of the United States." Otherwise, there would be a complete disjunction between what they articulated in those documents and their practices of slavery.

Taney asserted that racial attitudes were almost universally present at the time the Constitution was formed. In forceful language he argued:

We think they [Negroes] are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word "citizens" in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures...

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