James Buchanan and the Dred Scott Decision

Summary:

This month’s Presidents and the Constitution focuses on James Buchanan and his response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford. Buchanan’s fondest hope was to put to rest the building controversies regarding the spread of slavery. As president, he made it plain that he—and all citizens—should defer to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Resources:

Narrative:

Dred Scott was the slave of an army physician who had lived in the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was illegal. Upon returning to Missouri, Scott sued for his freedom on the grounds that he had once lived in a free territory. His case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. This decision would affect not only Dred Scott and his family, but also the larger question of whether Congress could regulate the spread of slavery.

President-Elect James Buchanan’s hope was to end the building controversies about the spread of slavery. In secret consultation with Justice James Grier, Buchanan had learned that the Supreme Court would hand down a pro-Southern decision, and the new president hoped to put to rest permanently the controversy regarding the spread of slavery. While Buchanan personally opposed slavery on moral grounds, he believed that the Constitution supported slavery.

The Court did not announce its decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford until March 6, 1857, but Buchanan endorsed the Court’s decision in his Inaugural Address on March 4. In his Address, Buchanan endorsed “popular sovereignty,” the idea that the spread of slavery would be determined by the voters in each territory. Referring to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, he supported Congress’ “simple rule that the will of the majority shall govern … the question of domestic slavery in the Territories.”

Buchanan went on to pre-approve the Supreme Court’s upcoming action concerning the future of slavery. “To their decision, in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit, whatever this may be… (A)ll agree that under the Constitution slavery in the States is beyond the reach of any human power except that of the respective States themselves.”
On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney announced in a 7-2 ruling against Dred Scott that Congress had no right to prohibit slavery in the territories, that slaves were property, and that slave owners could not be deprived of their property without due process.

With this decision, the Court supported the idea that there could be “property” in people. As president, Buchanan urged his fellow citizens to respect the Supreme Court’s ruling. President Buchanan’s understanding of the protection of slavery in the Constitution, while consistent with that of the majority both in Congress and in the Supreme Court, was inconsistent with the nation’s highest principles.

Questions:

  1. Who was Dred Scott and on what grounds did he sue for his freedom?
  2. How did President-Elect Buchanan know in advance how the Supreme Court would rule in Scott’s case?
  3. According to Buchanan, why was Congress powerless to regulate the spread of slavery?
  4. Why was Buchanan wrong that the Supreme Court’s decision would settle the controversy over the spread of slavery?

Extension:

Have students assume the persona of President-Elect James Buchanan. They should imagine they have learned of the Court’s decision in Dred Scott just before they take office. Ask them to write a new inaugural address in which they state their views on the decision and how the nation should react to it.