The inauguration of James Buchanan and the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court, two days later, marked a turning point in the career of Judge Douglas. Of this he was of course unaware. He accepted the advent of his successful rival with composure, and the opinion of the Court, with comparative indifference. In a speech before the Grand Jury of the United States District Court at Springfield, three months later, he referred publicly for the first time to the Dred Scott case. Senator, and not Judge, Douglas was much in evidence. He swallowed the opinion of the majority of the court without wincing—the obiter dictum and all. Nay, more, he praised the Court for passing, like honest and conscientious judges, from the technicalities of the case to the real merits of the questions involved. The material, controlling points of the case were: first, that a negro descended from slave parents could not be a citizen of the United States; second, that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and void from the beginning, and thus could not extinguish a master’s right to his slave in any Territory. “While the right continues in full force under ... the Constitution,” he added, “and cannot be divested or alienated by an act of Congress, it necessarily remains a barren and worthless right, unless sustained, protected, and enforced by appropriate police regulations and local legislation, prescribing adequate remedies for its violation. These regulations and remedies must necessarily depend entirely upon the will and wishes of the people of the Territory, as they can only be prescribed by the local legislatures.” Hence the triumphant conclusion that “the great principle of popular sovereignty and self-government is sustained and firmly established by the authority of this decision."
There were acute legal minds who thought that they detected a false note in this paean. Was this a necessary implication from the Dred Scott decision? Was it the intention of the Court to leave the principle of popular sovereignty standing upright? Was not the decision rather fatal to the great doctrine—the shibboleth of the Democratic party?
On this occasion Douglas had nothing to add to his exposition of the Dred Scott case, further than to point out the happy escape of white supremacy from African equality. And here he struck the note which put him out of accord with those Northern constituents with whom he was otherwise in complete harmony. “When you confer upon the African race the privileges of citizenship, and put them on an equality with white men at the polls, in the jury box, on the bench, in the Executive chair, and in the councils of the nation, upon what principle will you deny their equality at the festive board and in the domestic circle?” In the following year, he received his answer in the homely words of Abraham Lincoln: “I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife.”