Jill Lepore: Dred: Waiting for the Supreme Court

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jill Lepore is a staff writer for The New Yorker and is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University.

The worst decision the U.S. Supreme Court ever issued was delivered on March 6, 1857, a Friday. Like the Court’s decision on the Affordable Health Care Act, the decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, regarding the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise, was anxiously anticipated—even if, by modern standards, everything about it was sluggish.

The ruling had been postponed until after the Presidential election (not a bad idea) and then until after the inauguration. On Wednesday, March 4th, Chief Justice Roger Taney administered the oath of office to James Buchanan, who proceeded to deliver one of the lousiest inaugural addresses of all time. In it, he expressed his contentment with the forthcoming decision of the Supreme Court, whatever it might be. As for the legal matter at hand, the extension of slavery to new states entering the union, “this is, happily, a matter of but little practical importance,” Buchanan remarked. “Besides, it is a judicial question, which legitimately belongs to the Supreme Court of the United States, before whom it is now pending, and will, it is understood, be speedily and finally settled. To their decision, in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit.”

This, of course, was hogwash. Buchanan had lobbied for the postponement of the ruling, and had also pressured at least one Justice, a Northerner, to join the Court’s pro-slavery majority. Indifferent he was not....

comments powered by Disqus