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Coming of the Civil War, The Dred Scott Case

Lecompton Constitution, Dred Scott case, President James Buchanan, Missouri Compromise, congressional debate

At this point the Supreme Court, with a Southern majority among the justices, tried to settle the problem of slavery in the territories. It chose the Dred Scott case to do so. Scott was a slave owned by a U.S. Army doctor who had brought him to the free state of Illinois and the Territory of Wisconsin, which was free under the Missouri Compromise. Scott sued for his freedom on that basis.

The Supreme Court answered with a powerful proslavery decision in 1857. First, the majority stated that blacks (whether free or slaves) could not be citizens of the United States. As a result, Dred Scott’s case should never have entered the federal courts. The court went on to declare that the Missouri Compromise was invalid because Congress had no right to exclude slaves (who were legal property and therefore protected under the Constitution) from any territory. With that, the Supreme Court had adopted the extreme Southern position on the question of slavery in the territories, and declared the policy of the Republican Party and of a majority of Northerners unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, Kansas submitted two constitutions in its application for statehood—one that permitted slavery and one that did not. President James Buchanan, a Northern Democrat and a solid supporter of the South, sent the Lecompton (proslavery) Constitution to Congress with a strong recommendation that it be accepted. In a congressional debate that at one point broke into a fistfight, enough Northern Democrats finally defected from their party to reject the Lecompton Constitution. The controversy deeply divided the Democratic Party in the North and made the election of an antislavery Republican as president in 1860 very likely.

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