UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT

In arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, Montgomery Blair replaced Roswell Field as the Scotts’ attorney. Blair had moved from St. Louis to Washington in 1853 to be near his father, Francis P. Blair Sr., and to practice law before the Supreme Court. Failing health forced Hugh Garland from the case on Sanford’s side. He was replaced by two border state senators, Reverdy Johnson of Maryland and Henry S. Geyer of Missouri. Geyer had defeated Benton in Missouri in a bitter battle over the status of slavery in the West. Both senators argued for Southern Rights, insisting that African Americans could not be citizens and that the federal government had no power to interfere with the property rights of slave holders. They argued as well that since the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) had repealed the Missouri Compromise, the prohibition of slavery north of 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude had never been constitutional and could not be employed to secure Scott’s freedom. Indicating that it would consider both the procedural issues by which Scott’s case came before the court, and the substance of the case, the Supreme Court scheduled the case to be reargued a month after the federal election of 1856. In that election the new Republican party ran its first presidential candidate on a platform that opposed the admission of any new slave states.

Chief Justice Taney In a heated political environment and in the face of Chief Justice Taney’s determination to use the Dred Scott case to resolve fundamental constitutional issues concerning slavery, efforts to maintain judicial restraint collapsed. Justice Samuel Nelson of New York attempted to draft a narrow opinion that relied on Strader to uphold the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision in Scott v. Emerson. This approach would avoid the highly controversial issues of citizenship and federal authority over slavery in the territories. Taney opposed this effort and was joined by Justice James M. Wayne of Georgia. Together they drafted a decision that straightforwardly sustained the Southern Rights view that African Americans (free and slave) could not be citizens of the United States and that the federal government had no authority to bar slave property from the territories. Taney and Wayne carried the other three southern members of the court and successfully appealed to President elect James Buchanan to urge his fellow Pennsylvanian, Supreme Court Justice Robert Grier, to join the southern majority and avoid a strictly sectional decision.

When the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) (the court reporter misspelled the name Sanford) Taney offered the "Opinion of the Court" although each of the justices wrote an opinion in the case and no clear patterns of agreement emerged from the decisions. Click here to see the decisions made by each Justice. In public and political discussions, however, Taney’s decision was the Dred Scott decision. The central issue for Taney was the question of citizenship. The Chief Justice insisted that citizenship existed at two levels: one determined by the states, the other by the federal government. Citizenship granted by a state did not extend beyond the borders of the state. National citizenship derived from the federal Constitution. State citizenship did not permit an individual to bring suit in federal court. The federal Constitution, Taney insisted, recognized a "perpetual and impassible barrier" between whites and blacks. This barrier defined blacks as a "subordinate and inferior class of being," with no natural rights. Slaves, by definition, were not citizens and had no standing before the federal courts. Free blacks possessed only those rights granted to them by the states. A state like Massachusetts might choose to recognize free blacks as citizens but the perpetual and impassible barrier that Taney found in the Constitution forever prevented them from being citizens of the United States and bringing suit in federal court.