The Mirror of Evil – “A Self-Inflicted Wound”

“A Self-Inflicted Wound” [1]

By 1857, the controversy over slavery had come to a climax. The days of compromise were short. The Supreme Court was drafting the decision in the Scott v. Sandford case. This landmark case tested not only of the constitutionality of slavery, but of its defense as well.

The Court would decide whether Congress had the authority to ban slavery in portions of the United States and whether slaves could become citizens. [2] If they denied these rights, they were in effect negating the compromise that had banned slavery in certain states.

On March 6, 1857, Justice Roger Taney announced the courts ruling. In a 7-2 decision, the Court had ruled that blacks “are not included and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution.”  [3]  They were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” [4]  Further, in addition to prohibiting Congress from legislating against slavery, the decision implied that the legislature was required to protect it. [5]

Reaction to the decision came swiftly. The moderates who favored the status quo applauded it. Those who were content to leave slavery alone but opposed its expansion joined the abolitionist in vehemently denouncing it.

From the moderate abolitionists, Lincoln spoke against it, accusing the justices of trying to find “middle ground between the right and the wrong.” [6]  He carefully pointed out the logical error of denying Constitutional rights, citing the citizenship of blacks that voted for the Constitution. [7]

This “self-inflicted wound” failed to accomplish the purpose of the court. Despite the hopes of the Chief Justice that the decision would end the dispute over slavery, the Dred Scott case only served to inflame the issue. While it may have “settled the question of congressional authority…it exacerbated rather than ameliorated the class of opinion over slavery.”[8]


[1]  Rehnquist, Supreme Court, 143.

[2]  Rehnquist, Supreme Court, 138-140.

[3]  Dred Scott, Plaintiff in Error, v. John F. A. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 19 How. 393, 15 L.Ed. 691 (U.S. Supreme 1856).

[4]   Scott v. Sandford (U. S. Supreme 1856).

[5]  Allan Nevins, The Needless Conflict, in Historical Viewpoints, Vol. 1 ed. John Garraty (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 304.

[6]  Douglas, Mr. Lincoln, 20.

[7]  Goodwin, Rivals, 190.

[8] Rehnquist, Supreme Court, 143.

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