Dred Scott and the Politics of Slavery
Earl M. Maltz
The slave Dred Scott claimed that his residence in a free state transformed him into a free man. His lawsuit took many twists and turns before making its way to the Supreme Court in 1856. But when the Court ruled against him, the ruling sent shock waves through the nation and helped lead to civil war.
Writing for the 7-to-2 majority, Chief Justice Roger Taney asserted that blacks were not and never could be citizens. Taney also ruled that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional, upsetting the balance of slave and free states. Earl Maltz now offers a new look at this landmark case, presenting Dred Scott as a turning point in an already contentious national debate.
“A first-rate introduction to the central constitutional issues the justices grappled with when deciding Dred Scott. . . . The best place for the general reader to turn who wants a good short introduction to the most notorious Supreme Court decision in American history.”
—Civil War History
“A concise exploration. . . . Well written and classroom friendly.”
—H-Net ReviewsSee all reviews...
“A brief, highly readable introduction to one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most infamous decisions. . . . Teachers introducing students to the Court’s infamous 1857 decision will find Dred Scott and the Politics of Slavery an excellent addition to their reading lists.”
—Journal of Southern History
“This engaging anatomy of one of the most reviled decisions in Suprem eCourt history should appeal to legal scholars and history buffs alike.”
—Harvard Law Review
“Maltz’s book has many virtues that make it a useful resource . . . [It] provides concise accounts of the legal and political contexts of the case. . . . Many of its great strengths are quiet ones. For example, Maltz provides a superb interpretation of Tany’s opinion for the Court, giving an excellent account of the way in which Taney was able to make room for considering the Missouri Compromise, even though he had already denied jurisdiction in the case because Scott was not and could not be a U.S. citizen. He likewise does a fine job of showing how the appeal to the due process clause fit into Taney’s overall argument. His account of Curtis’s dissent is also very good.”
—Claremont Review of Books
“Tidy, informative, and sophisticated. . . . Maltz analyzes the case as a revealing aspect of more fundamental antebellum debates over slavery and the increasingly incendiary sectional divisions fueling them.”
—Law and Politics Book Review
“A crisp, fact-filled, no-nonsense, and well-written analysis of the legal and political issues at the heart of one of historys most important Supreme Court cases. If you like David Currie, Don E. Ferhrenbacher, and David Potter—and I for one like these authors immensely—you should like Maltz’s book, too.”
—Akhil Reed Amar, author of America’s Constitution: A Biography
“A penetrating and readable study of one of the most controversial cases in American constitutional history. Maltz skillfully situates Dred Scott in the complex political and legal climate of the 1850s and demonstrates how the decision heightened sectional tensions. His masterly and balanced account will enlighten both scholars and students.”
—James W. Ely Jr., author of The Guardian of Every Other Right: A Constitutional History of Property Rights
“Maltz clarifies the legal complexities of Dred Scott while illuminating the larger forces that produced it. Brimming with insights, this book is a model study of a landmark case.”
—Timothy S. Huebner, author of The Southern Judicial Tradition: State Judges and Sectional Distinctiveness, 1790–1890See fewer reviews...
Maltz's accessible account depicts Dred Scott as both a contributing factor to war and the result of a political climate that had grown so threatening to the South that overturning the Missouri Compromise was considered essential. As the nation continued its rapid expansion, Southerners became progressively more fearful of the free states' growing political clout. In that light, the ruling from a Court filled with justices sympathetic to the Southern cause, though far from surprising helped light the long fuse that eventually exploded into Civil War.
Maltz offers an uncommonly balanced look at the case, taking Southern concerns seriously to cast new light on why proponents of slavery saw things as they did. He presents the arguments of all the parties impartially, tracks the sequence of increasingly strained compromises between pro- and anti-slavery forces, and demonstrates how political and sectional influences infiltrated the legal issues. He then traces the impact of the case on Northern and Southern public opinion, showing how a decision meant to resolve the question of slavery in the territories only aggravated sectional animosity.
By presenting a more nuanced picture of the pro-Southern justices on the Court, Maltz offers readers a better understanding of how they came to their opinions, even as they failed to anticipate the impact their decision would have—a miscalculation that to some degree undermined the Court's power and authority within the American political system. Ultimately, as Maltz suggests, this is a story of judicial failure, one that remains a vital chapter in American law and one that must be mastered by anyone wishing to understand the peculiar nature of our national history.