Dred Scott Decision:

The Point of No Return

By Jonathan Bloom and Andrew Awad

In 1857 in the case Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court sided against Dred Scott, a former slave. Dred Scott had lived with his owners in free territories, and he claimed that this residence made him free. The Supreme Court deemed Scott still a slave and said that all African Americans, free or not, were not citizens and that only the state constitutions could ban slavery.

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While Bleeding Kansas was considered a major turning point on the war on slavery, the Dred Scott was the point at which war was inevitable. Because it was one of the first major instances to involve the entire nation and it prompted tension in both the North and the South

Regional Tensions

The Dred Scott decision was the point where The Civil War became inevitable because of the insurmountable tensions it created between pro-slavery advocates and abolitionists. The Dred Scott case prompted a national divide because of the potential consequences it served. Roger B. Taney’s ruling that slaves had no legal right to the Constitution along with his ruling that state governments or ordinances had no right to prevent the expansion of slavery angered many anti-slavery activists. While the Dred Scott case was local, its implications were national. These national tensions caused by the unilateral decision created the impetus to separate. The Liberator, a northern anti-slavery newspaper, claimed that, “The time has come for revolution and secession; and any thing short of that is treason to the cause of freedom”(Liberator). Because of the Case, This anti-slavery newspaper explicitly stated their secessionist views without hesitation. The case not only removed the any hopes of compromise, but also created secessionist sentiments from both the north and south. The decision created extreme anti-slavery feelings that could only end in war. The northern abolitionists also feared that a ““gain upon the public mind suffi-ciently to give promise” that “would extend and protect slavery in each state of the Union”(Dyer). Taney’s decision practically outlawed the restriction on slavery everywhere in the United States. The abolitionists felt threatened by the aggressive pro-slavery policies that could be derived from the Dred Scott decision. The seven to two vote of the Dred Scott case demonstrated the biased views of the supreme court judges. Northern abolitionists feared the repercussions of the judges’ pro-slavery ideology and were willing to fight to protect the God given rights of all Americans, no matter the skin color. These tensions caused by the decisions in the Dred Scott case directly lead to the cataclysm of the Civil War.

Political Tensions

The Dred Scott Decision was the point of no return for the coming of the civil war due to the major political divisions it caused, which led to other political conflicts and ultimately culminated in the secession of the Confederacy and the start of the Civil War. The decision made by the Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857 angered a large portion of the American population, and in particular, the anti-slavery community. Abraham Lincoln, a major figure in the anti-slavery American Republican party, claimed that adding “another Dred Scott decision” would allow the Supreme Court to make “Illinois a slave State” (Morel). Prior to the Dred Scott Decision, the Supreme Court had no way of allowing slavery in free states, especially those states charted from acts like the Northwest Ordinance, which formed free territories. The decision from the Dred Scott Case would prevent the national government from prohibiting slavery in territories; thus, the effects from the Northwest Ordinance and other similar acts would have been nullified. According to the decision and the Chief Justice, Roger Taney, the only way to prohibit slavery was through a state constitution. Lincoln also concluded that “Under the Dred Scott decision ‘squatter sovereignty’ squatted out of existence,” again demonstrating that people were alienated through the loss of popular sovereignty, preventing the people from making their own decisions regarding slavery (Lincoln).

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Political Tensions Continued

The Dred Scott Case not only caused major political divisions between different parties but also caused divides in the Democratic party. President James Buchanan was a major supporter of Taney’s decision from the Dred Scott case; however, fellow Democrat Senator Stephen Douglas disagreed with him and was a large proponent for popular sovereignty, which was nullified by the Dred Scott Decision. In Douglas’s Freeport Doctrine during one of his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln, Douglas claimed that “slavery cannot exist...unless it is supported by local police regulations,” which “can only be established by the local legislature” (Douglas). Douglas here continued on with his belief of popular sovereignty, claiming that people should vote for the legality of slavery, which was contradictory to the Buchanan supported decision of Dred Scott v. Sandford. This disagreement between Douglas and Buchanan forced a major divide between the Democratic party, thrusting the United States closer to the Civil War and preventing the Union from avoiding separation. The Dred Scott Decision also greatly influenced the Election of 1860, one of the major events that ultimately caused the secession of the Confederacy. A political cartoon from 1860 shows the four major groups of candidates dancing around Dred Scott, indicating the major influence this case had on American politics and the road to the civil war (The Political Quadrille. Music by Dred Scott.). By being so important in the election that was a major cause for the war, the Dred Scott Decision proved to be the point of no return for the Civil War since the next major impetus for the war was greatly influenced by the case. The Dred Scott Decision was the point of no return for the coming Civil War because of the large political divisions it caused.

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Bleeding Kansas: The Counter-Argument

While “Bleeding Kansas” was a major event that helped ignite the Civil War, it was not the point of no return because of its localized area of influence. Bleeding Kansas, a series of violent conflicts following the unjust vote to legalize slavery in the Kansas territory, triggered a major clash between the pro-slavery and abolition groups in Kansas. While this event really only involved Kansas and its immediately neighboring states, it proved that compromise was unattainable. John Brown, a soldier defending the anti-slavery town of Lawrence, Kansas, wrote that “Gov. Shannon had ordered out all the Pro-slavery force he could muster in the Territory, and called on Missouri for further help” (Brown). Shannon’s involvement of soldiers from Missouri demonstrates how Bleeding Kansas involved a few states in the American Midwest, but not many other locations. Since the event was so localized, its effects were not as far reaching as the Dred Scott Case, and therefore not as influential to the inception of the Civil War. Also, since Bleeding Kansas was caused by an unfair vote over slavery in Kansas, the idea of popular sovereignty was challenged and concerns about it were raised. While concerns were raised about the legitimacy of popular sovereignty in Kansas, it was not until the Dred Scott case that popular sovereignty was challenged and ultimately eliminated.The issues regarding popular sovereignty and slavery were brought up on a national scale because of the Dred Scott Decision, severely escalating tensions between the North and the South, whereas in Bleeding Kansas, concerns regarding popular sovereignty were more local. This indicates that the Dred Scott case was the point of no return for the Civil War and not Bleeding Kansas. Bleeding Kansas was not the point of no return for the United States Civil War due to its highly localized nature.

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The Dred Scott Decision was the point of no return for the coming United States Civil War due to the major political divides it caused and the regional tensions it strengthened.


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