Black Pawn On A Field Of Peril

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Perhaps the real trouble with the decision was that the general trend of events was moving in the other direction. The New York Herald , on March 9, 1857, summed it up: The Washington politicians who believe that it [the Dred Scott decision] settles anything must be afflicted with very severe ophthalmia indeed. For while these venerable judges are discoursing on theoretical expansions of slavery to North and West, free labor is marching with a very tangible step into the heart of the strongest slaveholds of slavery. Chief Justice Taney lays out on paper an infinitude of new slave states and territories; he makes all the states in a measure slave states; but while the old gentleman is thus diverting his slippered leisure, free carpenters and blacksmiths and farmers with hoe, spade and plough are invading Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and quietly elbowing the slaves further South. It will take a good many Supreme Court decisions to reverse a law of nature such as we here see in operation.

All in all, the Dred Scott decision did the Court profound and lasting harm. Many years later Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes remarked that it was a case in which the Court suffered from a self-inflicted wound, and characterized the ruling as a “public calamity.” More than a century after the decision was handed down, a historian of the Court wrote of it as a “monumental indiscretion.” The Court’s prestige suffered immensely, and Justice Felix Frankfurter once remarked that after the Civil War, justices of the Supreme Court never mentioned the Dred Scott case, any more than a family in which a son had been hanged mentioned ropes and scaffolds.

In the end, the profound majority of people in the North, who, regardless of party labels, believed that slavery’s expansion into the territories must be checked, agreed that while the Court’s finding was binding it must eventually be reversed. A new administration would give the Court new justices and a new background, and in the course of time it would be shown that a nation whose majority did not want slavery to expand would be able to make its wish good. There was just one point on which Republicans, northern Democrats, and southern Democrats all agreed: the finding in respect to Dred Scott as a person remained good. He was still a slave.

Their legal efforts to have him declared free having failed, Dred Scott’s owners manumitted him a few weeks later. On September 17, 1858, he died, in St. Louis, of tuberculosis. Henry Blow paid his funeral expenses.