President James Buchanan and the Dred Scott Decision

By the election of 1856 the country was fractured completely over the slavery issue. President James Buchanan, a Democrat, supported ‘popular sovereignty’ allowing States the sole authority to govern slavery within their borders. He also supported the Kansas – Nebraska act of 1854, which allowed slavery in states where it had previously been banned by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Buchanan won the Presidency with a majority in virtually all of the slave states, while losing most of the free states.

At time of Buchanan’s inauguration in March 1857, the Dred Scott issue was still pending at the Supreme Court. Dred Scott was an enslaved African-American man who had sued for his freedom, because he had lived in states and territories where slavery was illegal. Scott had won his freedom in the lower courts but after a number of appeals the case had reached the Supreme Court.

After his election and prior to his inauguration, Buchanan lobbied the Supreme Court behind the scenes regarding the Dred Scott case. One biographer stated: “…the President-elect wrote to [Supreme Court]… Justice Grier, urging a comprehensive judgment that moved beyond the particulars of Dred Scott’s individual status into that of all black Americans—slave and free...he wanted to use it as a turning point for a triumphant program of national harmony.”

In his inaugural address Buchanan stated that the issue of slavery was going to be resolved shortly: “…it [Slavery] is a judicial question, which legitimately belongs to the Supreme Court of the United States, before whom it is now pending, and will, it is understood, be speedily and finally settled. To their decision, in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit…” Buchanan may have known the content of the decision prior to its release. In his inaugural address, he continues: “May we hope that the long agitation on this subject [slavery] is approaching its end…It [slavery issue] has alienated and estranged the people of the sister States from each other, and has even seriously endangered the very existence of the Union…”. Buchanan was right; the slavery issue did endanger the Union. But he was wrong if he thought the Supreme Court was going to resolve the issue once and for all. It didn’t.

Two days after Buchanan’s inauguration,  the Supreme Court released the infamous Dred Scott Decision. The Supreme Court ruled that black people, free or slaves,“...were not and could never become citizens of the United States…

I’m not sure how the Court reconciled that statement with the fact that black men were already free voting citizens in several Northern States.

The Court ruled that the U.S. Congress had no authority to regulate slavery within States, ruling the 1820 Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. The Decision states that the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that ‘All Men are Created Equal’ does not apply to blacks: “…But it is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration...

Reaction to the Decision was swift and negative in the North. In a speech criticizing the Decision Lincoln stated: “The Republicans inculcate..that the negro is a man; that his bondage is cruelly wrong, and that the field of his oppression ought not to be enlarged. The Democrats deny his manhood;…crush all sympathy for him, and…compliment themselves as Union-savers for doing so…

Frederick Douglass, a leading abolitionist, believed the Dred Scott Decision would strengthen the abolitionist movement. And it did. The movement continued to grow as Northerners believed the Decision legalized slavery everywhere in the United States, even where it was currently banned.

Buchanan tended to blame the North for the divisions in the country. He believed that if the North stopped agitating against slavery, the division of the country would lessen. Buchanan was known as a ‘doughface’, a term generally applied to Northerners who sympathized with the South. He felt slavery was distracting the country from other issues. As stated in his inaugural speech: “Most happy will it be for the country when the public mind shall be diverted from this question [slavery] to others of more pressing and practical importance.” Again, this was not to be the case.

The Dred Scott Decision is considered the worst Supreme Court decision in its history. While Buchanan did not write it, he lobbied for the Decision and supported it, forever tainting his Presidency. As for Dred Scott himself, despite losing the case, he was released from slavery. He lived for 18 months as a free man until dying of tuberculosis. The issue of citizenship was resolved with the passage of the 14th amendment about 10 years later. Section 1 of that amendment reads “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.