Professor Garraty’s conclusion in "101 Things Every College Graduate Should Know About American History” (December 1986) that the Dred Scott decision of 1857 was “The Worst Supreme Court Decision” is definitely arguable.
I firmly believe that Chief Justice Roger Taney’s majority opinion in the case was the most fortuitous Supreme Court decision—the one that saved the Union- despite its immediate consequences. My reasoning has to do with the decision’s timing, not its wretched conclusions. By the late 185Os both the North and South were in a lather over the extension of slavery, and slavery itself. Clearly, however, only the South was contemplating disunion, and at a time when a weak, foolish, and irresolute leader, James Buchanan, was President of the United States.
Lacking Lincoln’s utter resolution that the Union must be saved, and without his rhetorical genius and political skills, Buchanan might well have lost the Union for good, as a leaderless people accepted the Confederacy, in disgust, but as the lesser of two evils.
We will never know what the results of a “good” Dred Scott decision would have been, but it’s a fair bet that such men as Texas’s “Pass the Biscuits Pappy” O’Daniel (now there’s a nickname!) would have found themselves elected to the Senate of the Confederate States of America.