Book Review: The Dred Scott Case

The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance In American Law And Politics, by Don E. Fehrenbacher

This particlar book won the Pulitzer Prize for History, and it was a well-earned prize. At about 600 pages of main text, and a large amount of detailed scolarly endnotes, this is clearly a book written with a lot of ambition as a definitive book about one of the most controversial cases the Supreme Court ever took on. Of great worth is the fact that the book does justice to the complicated nature of the legal and political history of the Dred Scott case, the fact that most of the channels for interpretation were decided fairly early on after the case was decided, and the numerous and serious legal, historical, and logical flaws within many of the parts of the opinion, especially that by Chief Justice Taney himself. Although the book does not go into the matter in depth, one can see the same difficulties springing from this case as other particularly serious Supreme Court cases where attempts to solve political problems by the justices of the Supreme Court only lead to a lower credibility in the competence and justice of the judiciary branch of government in particular.

In terms of its organization and structure, this book is made up of very clear and thematic chapters. The first part of the book examines the historical context of the Dred Scott case in eight chapters, looking at the relationship between race and slavery in America’s founding, the place of slavery in the American constitutional system, freedom, expansion and slavery in politics and in a continental republic, the territorial question, the pressures towards judicial revolution as Congress became increasingly unable to resolve the divide between its two houses, and the activist nature of the Taney court and the lip service it gave to judicial restraint. The second part of the book examines the decade of litigation between Dred Scott and the widow Emerson, who, embarrassingly enough, ended up marrying an antislavery Congressman whose political career was ruined by the revelation of his role in the case. Fehrenbacher looks at Scott’s travels, his lawsuits against Emerson and Sanford (misspelled Sandford in the Supreme Court case), and the arguments in front of the Supreme Court, as well as the confused nature of the decision and its many opinions, what the decision actually decided, and a few chapters on the Dred Scott decision and its opinion on the citizenship of free blacks (which Taney consistently considered a contradiction in terms), as well as the place of slavery in the territories, and the various concurrent and dissenting opinions. The third and final part of the book examines the consequences and echoes of the decision, including the result of what the judges judged, the connection with the Lecompton crisis, its relationship to the Freeport Doctrine in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the conflict the decision encouraged, the reasons why the decision was made, as Taney felt it necessary to defend the interests of the Slave South, and the context of the case in the larger stream of history.

Those who are fond readers of Fehrenbacher’s books in general [1] will find much to enjoy. The research is well done, the discussion witty, the treatment even-handed, and the historical and legal analysis sound. Fehrenbacher is not afraid to point out the flaws and inconsistencies of many sides, and the immense complexity of the case, and also seeks to reduce the appearance of collusion and conspiracy, which he views as a lamentable aspect of the American political culture, if a consistent one. If one has a strong interest in legal history and its influence on political history, an interest in the course of slavery in the American republic, and in the hazards faced by statesmen during times of deep political decision, this book has a lot to offer.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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