The Road To Civil War
Democrats, unwilling to let these Republican proclamations go unchallenged, mounted a strong defense of their own, especially in response to the conspiracy charges. Senator Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana refuted Senator Fessenden's argument in a speech to President Buchanan:
Senator [Fessenden] . . . says the Constitution does not recognize slaves as property, nor protect them as property, and his reasoning, a little further on, is somewhat curious . . . . Nothing but my respect for the logical intellect of the Senator from Maine [Fessenden] could make me treat this argument as
serious, and nothing but having heard it myself would make me believe that he ever uttered it.
As for Senator Seward's cries of conspiracy, Senator Benjamin simply asked to see the facts that proved these charges:
This man [Taney] has been charged by the Senator from New York [Mr. Seward] with a corrupt coalition with the Chief Magistrate of the Union. He charges in fact . . . that the Supreme Magistrate of the land and the judges of our highest court, and the parties to the Dred Scott case, got up a mock trial;
that they were all in common collusion to cheat the country . . . . What are the facts? Men should be a little careful in making such accusations as these; unless, indeed they care not whether they be true or false . . . .
Democrats also sought to depict Republicans as anti-Constitutional because they refused to completely submit to the decision of the Supreme Court, even though the Court's decision, according to the Democrats, had been entirely within their jurisdiction as defined in the Constitution. Stephen Douglas especially used this technique to vilify Abraham Lincoln during their debates in Illinois in 1858:
Mr. Lincoln goes for a warfare upon the Supreme Court of the United States,
because of their judicial decision in the Dred Scott case. I yield obedience
to the decisions in that court--to the final determination of the highest
judicial tribunal known to our constitution.
The Dred Scott decision also served as an eye-opener to Northerners who believed that slavery was tolerable as long as it stayed in the South. If the decision took away any power Congress once had to regulate slavery in new territories, these once-skeptics reasoned, slavery could quickly expand into much of the western United States. And once slavery expanded into the territories, it could spread quickly into the once-free states. Lincoln addressed this growing fear during a speech in Springfield, Illinois on June 17, 1858:
Put this and that together, and we have another nice little niche, which we
may, ere long, see filled with another Supreme Court decision, declaring that
the Constitution of the United States does not permit a State to exclude
slavery from its limits. . . . We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the
people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free, and we shall
awake to the reality instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave
For many Northerners who had remained silent on the issue, this very real possibility was too scary to ignore. Suddenly many Northerners who had not previously been against the South and against slavery began to realize that if they did not stop slavery now, they might never again have the chance. This growing fear in the North helped further contribute to the Civil War.
Four years after Chief Justice Taney read his infamous Scott v. Sandford decision, parts of the proslavery half of the Union had seceded and the nation was engaged in civil war. Because of the passions it aroused on both sides, Taney's decision certainly accelerated the start of this conflict. Even in 1865, as the long and bloody war drew to a close with the Northern, antislavery side on top, a mere mention of the decision struck a nerve in the Northern Congress. A simple and customary request for a commemorative bust of Taney, to be placed in a hall with busts of all former Supreme Court Chief Justices, was blocked by the Republican-controlled Congress. Charles Sumner, the leader of those who blocked the request, had strong words on the late Chief Justice and his most notorious decision:
I speak what cannot be denied when I declare that the opinion of the Chief
Justice in the case of Dred Scott was more thoroughly abominable than anything
of the kind in the history of courts. Judicial baseness reached its lowest
point on that occasion. You have not forgotten that terrible decision where a
most unrighteous judgment was sustained by a falsification of history. Of
course, the Constitution of the United States and every principle of Liberty
was falsified, but historical truth was falsified also. . . .
Clearly Scott v. Sandford was not an easily forgotten case. That it still raised such strong emotions well into the Civil War shows that it helped bring on the war by hardening the positions of each side to the point where both were willing to fight over the issue of slavery. The North realized that if it did not act swiftly, the Southern states might take the precedent of the Scott case as a justification for expanding slavery into new territories and free states alike. The South recognized the threat of the Republican party and knew that the party had gained a considerable amount of support as a result of the Northern paranoia in the aftermath of the decision. In the years following the case, Americans realized that these two mindsets, both quick to defend their side, both distrustful of the other side, could not coexist in the same nation. The country realized, in Abraham Lincoln's words, that " house divided against itself cannot stand.' . . . This government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free." Scott's case left America in "shocks and throes and convulsions" that only the complete eradication of slavery through war could cure.