Newspaper Editorials about the Dred Scott Decision
When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its infamous Dred Scott Decision on March 6, 1857, declaring that Blacks cannot be citizens of the United States and have no protections under the U.S. Constitution, the Court hoped to put the slavery controversy to rest. How wrong it was! The slavery issue only became more divisive, and instead of threatening to tear the nation apart it actually did just that four years later, when the Civil War began.
The separation between anti- and pro-slavery factions can be seen in the following two editorials—one from a Northern newspaper ridiculing the Dred Scott Decision, and the other expressing a Southern perspective supporting the Supreme Court’s ruling.
This first editorial was published by the Lowell Daily Citizen (Lowell, Massachusetts) on March 9, 1857:
The Dred Scott Case
The decision in this case is calculated to stir up as great an excitement [in] the North against the accursed institution of slavery as any event that has preceded it. The able and common sense view of Judges McLean and Curtis, which were given on Saturday, reveal to the people that even the Supreme Court is composed of fallible men, who cannot agree one with another. If two may be wrong, so may five, and thus arguing, citizens will begin to feel a contempt for the decisions of all courts, and hold with Jefferson that the opinions of our Judges are worth no more than those of so many private citizens, and should be treated with no more respect. We give the substance of Justices McLean and Curtis’ opinion, showing a wide difference between them and a majority of the Court.
Judge McLean says Slavery is limited to the range of the state where it is established by municipal law. If Congress deems slaves or free colored persons injurious to a Territory they have the power to prohibit them from becoming settlers. The power to acquire territory carries the power to govern it. The master does not carry with him to the Territory the law of the State from which he removes. Hence the Missouri Compromise was constitutional and the presumption is in favor of freedom. Dred Scott and his family were free under the decisions of the last 28 years.
Judge Curtis dissented from the opinion of the majority of the Court as delivered by Chief Justice Taney, and gave his reasons for the dissent. Judge Curtis maintained that native-born colored persons can be citizens of the State and of the United States. That Dred Scott and his family were free when they returned to Missouri. That the power of Congress to make all needful rules and regulations respecting the Territory was not as the majority of the Court expressed, limited to territory belonging to the United States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, but has been applied to five subsequent acquisitions of land. That Congress has power to exclude slavery from the Territories, having established eight territorial governments without, and recognized slavery in six, from the time of Washington to J. Q. Adams.
The majority decision is received by evident alarm by all the Northern press. It is a declaration of eternal war between slavery and freedom, we are afraid; of eternal war between the Free and Slave States. “Sectionalism” must rule hereafter, for even the Supreme Court is divided North and South.
This second editorial was published by the Baltimore American (Maryland was a slave state) and reprinted by the Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia—Virginia was also a slave state) on March 10, 1857:
The Baltimore American, speaking of the decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, says: “We are not so quixotic as to suppose that this or any decision will quiet the sectional excitement of the country upon the slavery question. The right to agitate is one that no judicial authority can limit, and so long, as in this case, agitation is the lever that works upon prejudices for the attainment of political power, it will be resorted to. But the decision will have power in backing the exertions of conservative men; it will force anti-slavery agitation into a more open and avowed field of opposition to Southern institutions not out of, but in Southern States, and will give to the friends of Southern rights a vantage ground they cannot fail to occupy. Briefly expressed, it will put the latter upon solid, safe and conservative ground of constitutional law as authoritatively defined, whilst it will drive their opponents from behind the shelter of disputed points, and force them to take their position upon the open field of hostility to the Constitution as it now exists. Wilmot provisos and congressional restrictions upon the rights of inhabitants of Territories are henceforth banished from the armory of sectional agitation. They are no longer allowable weapons.
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