The dred scott decision of the supreme court, 1857



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A Level History M. Nichols BWIC 2008-9

THE DRED SCOTT DECISION OF THE SUPREME COURT, 1857
The Dred Scott decision made little practical difference to sectional divisions over the slavery issue’ Using Sources A-E, discuss how far the evidence supports this assertion.
From these documents the Dred Scott decision seems to have had definite impact and significance. However, not all the sources reflect this, with one in particular denying its importance. Given the limitations of the evidence also, it is difficult to come to an objective decision based on this evidence alone.
Document C is the only one which seems to denigrate the importance of Justice Taney’s decision. Douglas even states that “it matters not what the Supreme Court may decide…”. Instead he propounds the importance of his pet idea of ‘popular sovereignty’ and the “right of the people” to decide the issue of slavery in the Territories. He emphasises the importance of “the people” throughout his speech.
However, this is not a reliable document. Douglas seems to be ignoring the highest court in the land by a disingenuous appeal to the masses. We know ideas of popular sovereignty were his way of sidelining the slavery issue. He is a pork-barrel politician who is using a speech to promote his own point of view.
The other four documents stress the importance of the case. Source A shows how the decision killed the 1820 Missouri Compromise and ended the Mason-Dixon divide. This was supposedly a disaster, as it seemed to threaten the extension of slavery above the line. Source B drips with indignation and anger at the decision, and the end of the 1820 Compromise. D refers to the unconstitutionality of the decision and how it was “improperly made” and should even be reversed. While E refers to how it the decision provoked a “greater storm than any other decision before or since”. The Court was destroying the Republicans platform on the extension of slavery, as well as ideas of ‘popular sovereignty’. Given both these ideas were compromises of a kind, the decision might even be seen to be one of the causes of the Civil War.
However, none of these documents are reliable evidence. Source B is merely the angry and opinionated ravings of a biased and probably abolitionist publication. D are the views of a highly pragmatic politician who is running for office. Lincoln seems more interested in attacking his political-rival Douglas than Taney, whom he does not even mention. Document E has the benefit of hindsight, as a secondary source, but is still full of opinions, notably about the importance of the decision, though the other sources do seem to corroborate, in a limited way, that a “storm” did erupt.
From the documents and my own knowledge, Taney’s decision did enflame an already increasingly sectionalised nation. However, it is difficult to over-stress its importance. The Court may have struck down the Missouri Compromise of 1820, but the 1850 Compromise had arguably already done that. Besides, the Mason-Dixon line had never really established a slave-non-slave divide as states like Delaware above the line, had been slave-holding. Figures like Lincoln were less interested in the ethics of the Dred Scott case anyway than the question of protecting the interests of his supporters, namely free-soilers. Only in this way did the politicians of the time really care.


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