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In the presidential election of 1856, the Democrats cast around for someone nobody knew enough about to hate and came up with James "Old Buck" Buchanan, who had been out of the country serving as ambassador to Britain. Buchanan beat John Fremont, the first presidential candidate of the new Republican Party.

Had Fremont won, the Civil War could have been off to an early start. Fremont believed in action and was so antislavery that when he later served as a Union general during the Civil War, he had to be recalled for freeing slaves prematurely. Buchanan, on the other hand, generally supported slavery and its extension to the territories under popular sovereignty, so the South stayed put during most of his presidency. He couldn't have done much else to save the Union, though; sectional conflict was barreling down the tracks like a runaway freight train.

As he took the oath of office, Buchanan was looking forward to the Supreme Court's decision on the Dred Scott case, issued only two days after he became president.


Dred Scott (1857) was a slave whose master had taken him to live in free Illinois and Wisconsin. Scott sued for his freedom, because he had spent years living with his master in places where slavery was illegal. The Supreme Court could have just ruled that Scott couldn't sue because, in the twisted world of pre-Civil War law, Scott wasn't a person with legal standing. Legally, he could no more sue for freedom than your cat can sue for cat food. The law, bad as it was, was clear on a slave's lack of standing to sue in court.

The ruling

The Supreme Court may be the highest in the land and presumably above partisanship, but that doesn't mean the judges are blind to politics. Having lost its majority in the Senate and with abolitionists nipping at Southerners' heels in the House, the South still ruled in one place: the Supreme Court. Most of whose justices were Southern sympathizers. They took this opportunity to strike a legal blow against anybody who questioned slavery.

The Supreme Court ruled that because slaves were private property and because the Fifth Amendment prohibited Congress from depriving people of their property without due process of law, every restriction on slavery, every hard-fought compromise, and every choice of the people in any state or territory was null and void. Due process of the law means that lawmakers must respect all of a person's legal rights, not just some or most of them, when passing laws. If a slave owner had an unrestricted legal right to own a slave (and of course the slave, being property, had no rights at all) then the slave owner could take his slaves anywhere he wanted and work them as slaves as long as he wanted.

The ruling in the Dred Scott case probably is the worst decision the Supreme Court ever made. First, it was an irrational interpretation of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, the amendment that protects life, liberty, and property. Due process of the law is exactly what the Congress and the territorial and state legislatures had gone through in debating and passing laws banning slavery from jurisdictions under their control. The legislature clearly had the right to legally deprive people of their property for the public good; that's exactly what taxation and eminent domain are. Second, the ruling on the Dred Scott case virtually guaranteed that civil law would lead to civil war; the Supreme Court was stripping the power of the law by making it politically absurd.

The ramifications

The fallout from the Dred Scott decision didn't take long to hit. Stephen Douglas, the Democratic cheerleader for popular sovereignty, felt stabbed in the back and fought back furiously in the Senate. The Republicans had a field day, calling the previously respected Supreme Court nothing but a Southern debating society. The South was first delighted and then aghast that the North wouldn't follow the ruling of the august Supreme Court when the South was winning. Talk on both sides moved farther in the direction of "We can't live with these people."


Question: What was the overall legal importance of the Dred Scott decision?

Answer: The Dred Scott decision meant Congress could put no limits on slavery in the territories, or technically, anywhere else in the United States


Question: What laws did the Dred Scott decision overturn?

Answer: The Dred Scott case effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

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