Buchanan was elected; but for a brand-new party the Republicans had put up a very good fight, and they were in the highest of spirits when, shortly after Buchanan’s Inauguration in 1857, a staggering blow fell upon them from an unexpected quarter. This was nothing less than a pronouncement by the Chief Justice and a majority of Justices in the Supreme Court of the United States, that the exclusion of slavery from any portion of the Territories, and therefore, of course, the whole aim and object of the Republicans, was, as Calhoun had contended eight or ten years before, unconstitutional.
Dred Scott was a Missouri slave whose misfortunes it is needless to compassionate, since, after giving his name to one of the most famous law cases in history, he was emancipated with his family by a new master into whose hands he had passed. Some time before the Missouri Compromise was repealed he had been taken by his master into Minnesota, as a result of which he claimed that he became, by virtue of the Missouri Compromise, a free man. His right to sue his master in a Federal Court rested on the allegation that he was now a citizen of Missouri, while his master was a citizen of another State. There was thus a preliminary question to be decided, Was he really a citizen, before the question, Was he a freeman, could arise at all. If the Supreme Court followed its established practice, and if it decided against his citizenship, it would not consider the question which interested the public, that of his freedom.
Chief Justice Roger Taney may be seen from the refined features of his portrait and the clear-cut literary style of his famous judgment to have been a remarkable man. He was now eighty-three, but in unimpaired intellectual vigour. In a judgment, with which five of his colleagues entirely concurred and from which only two dissented, he decided that Dred Scott was not a citizen, and went on, contrary to practice, to pronounce, in what was probably to be considered as a mere obiter dictum, that Dred Scott was not free, because the Missouri Compromise had all along been unconstitutional and void. Justices McLean and Curtis, especially the latter, answered Taney’s arguments in cogent judgments, which it seems generally to be thought were right. Many lawyers thought so then, and so did the prudent Fillmore. This is one of the rare cases where a layman may have an opinion on a point of law, for the argument of Taney was entirely historical and rested upon the opinion as to negroes and slavery which he ascribed to the makers of the Constitution and the authors of the Declaration of Independence. On the question of Scott’s citizenship he laid down that these men had hardly counted Africans as human at all, and used words such as “men,” “persons,” “citizens” in a sense which necessarily excluded the negro. We have seen already that he was wrong—the Southern politician who called the words of the Declaration of Independence “a self-evident lie” was