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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, The Dred Scott Case is a masterful examination of the most famous example of judicial failure--the case referred to as "the most frequently overturned decision in history." On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the Supreme Court's decision against Dred Scott, a slave who maintained he had been emancipated as a result Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, The Dred Scott Case is a masterful examination of the most famous example of judicial failure--the case referred to as "the most frequently overturned decision in history." On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the Supreme Court's decision against Dred Scott, a slave who maintained he had been emancipated as a result of having lived with his master in the free state of Illinois and in federal territory where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise. The decision did much more than resolve the fate of an elderly black man and his family: Dred Scott v. Sanford was the first instance in which the Supreme Court invalidated a major piece of federal legislation. The decision declared that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the federal territories, thereby striking a severe blow at the legitimacy of the emerging Republican party and intensifying the sectional conflict over slavery. This book represents a skillful review of the issues before America on the eve of the Civil War. The first third of the book deals directly with the with the case itself and the Court's decision, while the remainder puts the legal and judicial question of slavery into the broadest possible American context. Fehrenbacher discusses the legal bases of slavery, the debate over the Constitution, and the dispute over slavery and continental expansion. He also considers the immediate and long-range consequences of the decision.


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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, The Dred Scott Case is a masterful examination of the most famous example of judicial failure--the case referred to as "the most frequently overturned decision in history." On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the Supreme Court's decision against Dred Scott, a slave who maintained he had been emancipated as a result Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, The Dred Scott Case is a masterful examination of the most famous example of judicial failure--the case referred to as "the most frequently overturned decision in history." On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the Supreme Court's decision against Dred Scott, a slave who maintained he had been emancipated as a result of having lived with his master in the free state of Illinois and in federal territory where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise. The decision did much more than resolve the fate of an elderly black man and his family: Dred Scott v. Sanford was the first instance in which the Supreme Court invalidated a major piece of federal legislation. The decision declared that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the federal territories, thereby striking a severe blow at the legitimacy of the emerging Republican party and intensifying the sectional conflict over slavery. This book represents a skillful review of the issues before America on the eve of the Civil War. The first third of the book deals directly with the with the case itself and the Court's decision, while the remainder puts the legal and judicial question of slavery into the broadest possible American context. Fehrenbacher discusses the legal bases of slavery, the debate over the Constitution, and the dispute over slavery and continental expansion. He also considers the immediate and long-range consequences of the decision.

30 review for The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics

  1. 5 out of 5

    Porter Broyles

    Ok, I loved this book, but my enjoyment may be stilted. This book is right up my area of interest---Antebellum legal history. This is not the first book I have read on the subject, but it is the best. Fehrenbacher starts by taking on two important issues in the first 25 pages. First, he confronts the myth that the earliest black’s in the colonies were servants/no different from white indentured servants. He adeptly observes that while some white indentured servants may have been abducted from th Ok, I loved this book, but my enjoyment may be stilted. This book is right up my area of interest---Antebellum legal history. This is not the first book I have read on the subject, but it is the best. Fehrenbacher starts by taking on two important issues in the first 25 pages. First, he confronts the myth that the earliest black’s in the colonies were servants/no different from white indentured servants. He adeptly observes that while some white indentured servants may have been abducted from their homes, that ALL black “servants” had been. At the same time, he corrects the notion that the 3/5th compromise meant that blacks were worth 3/5th of a white. The three-fifths agreement, whose concepts predate the Constitution, was an economic declination, not about personage. The 3/5th compromise was intended to indicate that a slave was as effective (economically) as 3/5ths of a freeman. It tied the voting power to economic contribution. Fehrenbacher then discusses the various sections of the Slavery as it pertains to the Constitution. While he discusses the different sections, one of the most salient points he makes involves the placement of the fugitive slave clause. The Clause, which served as the basis for the Fugitive Slave Act (which other authors have argued was the key to disunion) was placed in Article 4 of the Constitution not Article 1. Fehrenbacher argues that this was intended as a limitation on state authority, not an expansion of federal authority (which is what the Fugitive Slave Act became). The book goes on to make other interesting points such as the notion that John C Calhoun (Sec of War, VP, and Sec of State) was responsible for a shift in the thinking about slavery in the 1840s. While it had been viewed as a political issue, Calhoun spearheaded the notion that slavery was a Constitutional right and that the current political climate should not impede with a Constitutional Right. This is where the Fehrenbacher absolutely shined. I’ve read numerous books before which have alluded to the notion that one of the key arguments during this time period was that the Federal Government had no power in the Territories. I have never fully understood those arguments. Of course, the Government has authority in the territories. That is 20th century logic; Fehrenbacher walks the reader through the narrative (and historical ideology) that the Constitution was a Federal document that had no bearing upon unorganized territories that had not recognized any authoritative entity. (He also observes, almost flippantly, that the people who migrated to territories were often idealist fleeing organized government.) This is just the first third of the book! The book then provides one of the more readable and intriguing coverages of Dred Scott, the case, and the interpretation I have encountered. Perhaps the most surprising revelation in the book was learning that the most cited line from the Dred Scott Decision ("Negros have no rights to which the white man is bound to respect.") is misquoted! While Taney did use the phrase in the official opinion, it was not part of the opinion! It was part of the background section. Taney was not presenting a declarative statement, but was providing historical context for the case! (Of course, his understanding of history might be subject to bias, but he was not stating an operative condition going forward!) Part of the reason why this misquote has become part of the modern understanding of the opinion is because Taney did not publish the Court’s Opinion after reading it. Instead, he chose to revise the opinion. The two dissenter’s published their opinions immediately and newspapers reported what they heard. This line became one of the most quoted lines from the oral opinion, but its context was lost because the printed document was not released. During this 2 months, Taney appears to have edited the final opinion and added to it. (The original Opinion was expected to be 37 pages, but the final was 55 pages!) Fehrenbacher analyzes the entirety of the Scott Decision as a whole and in sections. He shows where Taney’s opinion had firm legal footing (rare) and where it diverged from contemporary thought. How the opinion often was contradictory to itself and to other Court opinion. The last quarter of the book dealt with the historical consequences of the book. This was the weakest part of the book, but those not familiar with the period would probably enjoy it.

  2. 4 out of 5

    rmn

    Not nearly as interesting as I thought it would be as the focus of the book is really on constitutional law, Taney's (mis)interpretation of it, and then other factors that led up to the Civil War. But that's probably my fault as I found this on a list of Pulitzer Prize winners and apparently stopped reading the title after the first part: "The Dred Scott Case" and missed the whole second part: "in American Law and Politics." So I was expecting more of a historical narrative than an exhaustive an Not nearly as interesting as I thought it would be as the focus of the book is really on constitutional law, Taney's (mis)interpretation of it, and then other factors that led up to the Civil War. But that's probably my fault as I found this on a list of Pulitzer Prize winners and apparently stopped reading the title after the first part: "The Dred Scott Case" and missed the whole second part: "in American Law and Politics." So I was expecting more of a historical narrative than an exhaustive and technical analysis of a murky Supreme Court decision that has confused people for years. I guess what I am saying is there are two sets of people for whom this book will appeal: 1. Constitutional law students and 2. People who like books with red books covers. Cutting through the dry parts, there was a pretty interesting narrative, namely that the Dred Scott decision was not based on a consistent reading of the constitution (or logic), not all of the Supreme Court Justices agreed (in fact to this day people are still debating who agreed to what and what was actually decided), Justice Taney was a bit of an asshat to use a technical term (even though some scholars have wrongly regarded him in a high degree), and the Dred Scott decision did not actually play that large of a role in secession (the author argues that the Lecompton affair was much more of a tangible lightening rod, plus just overall inertia of a terrible policy needing to be reformed). Probably a very good book for constitutional law students to read but a bit dry and overly technical for the rest of us.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ann

    This is an in-depth legal history of the Supreme Court case involving Dred Scott. Really fascinating and well-read. What stands out for me is that this case wasn't to determine whether or not Dred Scott was legally still a slave or not based on his specific case, but rather, the judges had to decide whether or not he had the right to sue someone or not. Pretty crazy and a fascinating read. This is an in-depth legal history of the Supreme Court case involving Dred Scott. Really fascinating and well-read. What stands out for me is that this case wasn't to determine whether or not Dred Scott was legally still a slave or not based on his specific case, but rather, the judges had to decide whether or not he had the right to sue someone or not. Pretty crazy and a fascinating read.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Scott Ford

    Before Fort Sumter, there was Dred Scott. A great way to look through the surface and into the depths of national politics just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Bill Tyroler

    Astonishing account of the Supreme Court’s most notorious case, Dred Scott v. Sandford (essentially stripping all blacks of their right to citizenship). Bit of caution though: you probably need to have some idea of jurisprudential analysis—how lawyers and judges slice and dice their way through caselaw—to fully appreciate the discussion. And even then, it can be a bit of a slog. Nonetheless, the effort will be richly rewarded. The final chapter ("In the Stream of History") is worth special note. Astonishing account of the Supreme Court’s most notorious case, Dred Scott v. Sandford (essentially stripping all blacks of their right to citizenship). Bit of caution though: you probably need to have some idea of jurisprudential analysis—how lawyers and judges slice and dice their way through caselaw—to fully appreciate the discussion. And even then, it can be a bit of a slog. Nonetheless, the effort will be richly rewarded. The final chapter ("In the Stream of History") is worth special note. There, Don Fehrenbacher said of Roger Taney, author of the Scott opinion, that his "rehabilitation ... continued and was eminently successful. ... In fact, there has probably never been a sharper contrast between the reputation of an author and the reputation of his most famous work." (p. 589). Those words simply could not be written today, 40 years later. Baltimore was so chagrined to be seen as Taney's hometown, that in 2017 it removed and placed in storage a sculpture that had publicly honored him for 130 years (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_B...). At the same time, a statue of Taney was removed from Maryland Statehouse grounds (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/r...). The pendulum has swung from rehabilitation to disgust. Not that Fehrenbacher could have foreseen this change in momentum. But he was astute in linking, first, the Dred Scott opinion to "the emergence of substantive due process of law." And near-clairvoyant in linking it to the question of "judicial sovereignty, a theory of power ... first put to significant use by" that opinion. (pp. 594-95). I suppose we might today substitute the phrase "judicial activism," but "judicial sovereignty" is more descriptive if drier. And he is exactly right, the question roils our politics as well as courts to this day. Consider that Dred Scott was the first Supreme Court decision to strike down a statute on the ground of substantive due process. And then consider that this is something recently mentioned by *dissenters* while chiding the majority for finding a due process right to same-sex marriage: "The need for restraint in administering the strong medicine of substantive due process is a lesson this Court has learned the hard way." (Obergefell v. Hodges, https://scholar.google.com/scholar_ca...). An irony of jurisprudence, then, that a doctrine that sought to memorialize slavery was later utilized to liberate a once-despised minority. And consider too the irony that *another* aspect of the Dred Scott opinion -- that the Constitution (the Bill of Rights more specifically, if not called such then) follows the flag. Filipinos, that is, could claim entitlement to those rights when their country was a US territory. Scott v. Sandford may be a stain on our Court, but certain doctrines it enunciated continue to reverberate and for good not ill. This is a book brimming with insights, relating to contemporary as well as historical meaning.

  6. 4 out of 5

    John

    The late Don Fehrenbacher was one of the most incisive and industrious historians of the US during the 19th century. He exhibited that his great analytical and narrative skills were at their height in this entirely illuminating description of the Dred Scott decision, how the Supreme Court decided that case and how it effected politics during the 1850s. I doubt that many readers will finish the book burdened with undue admiration of Roger B. Tanney.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jdb

    A disgraceful moment in SCOTUS history...worthwhile read even if it sometimes bogs down in legal technicalities

  8. 5 out of 5

    Frank Stein

    This book is endlessly fascinating because it treats the Dred Scott case, and, in a sense, the entire conflict leading to the Civil War, as a grand legal and constitutional debate, one that touched on issues of democracy, freedom, America, and, of course, race. It brings the reader into that debate, and evaluates each sides' arguments with a keen eye. From a constitutional angle, both North and South had strong points, but by the Dred Scott decision in 1857, the South had become so obsessed with This book is endlessly fascinating because it treats the Dred Scott case, and, in a sense, the entire conflict leading to the Civil War, as a grand legal and constitutional debate, one that touched on issues of democracy, freedom, America, and, of course, race. It brings the reader into that debate, and evaluates each sides' arguments with a keen eye. From a constitutional angle, both North and South had strong points, but by the Dred Scott decision in 1857, the South had become so obsessed with foreclosing any attack on slavery that they made increasingly outlandish arguments about the Constitution's inherent anti-black and pro-slavery defenses, which were embodied in Chief Justice Roger Taney's odious majority opinion for the Supreme Court. The Dred Scott case, and the debates leading to the Civil War, centered around Congress's power to prohibit or allow slavery in the newly acquired territories, or to allow territorial legislatures to do so. The author notes that although Democrat Lewis Cass of Michigan came up with the idea of "popular sovereignty" of western territories over the slavery question in 1848, that policy had effectively been in place for the Southern territories since the first of these were organized in 1790. While the territories North of the Ohio had long had clauses in their enabling acts forbidding slavery, the Southern territories' acts were silent, and thus the territorial governments there allowed slavery by default. But after the Mexican American War, some in the South wanted congressional guarantees against territorial legislation on slavery, which they tried to attach to the New Mexico and Utah enabling acts. They failed, but partially because some Southerns held to the belief that neither Congress or the territorial legislatures could say anything on slavery under the limited territorial clause of the Constitution. The author points out that by the Compromise of 1850, the nation seemed increasingly incapable of agreeing to disagree. Thus part of the compromise was merely a punt to the Courts: the amendment originally sponsored by Senator John M. Clayton of Delaware which allowed rapid hearings of cases dealing with constitutional issues in the new territories. Chief Justice Roger Taney took this clear desire for judicial resolution and intended to ride it to a final conclusion of the slavery debate. His decision, intermittently agreed to by up to 7 other justices, said first that a black man was not even a citizen who could sue under the diversity clause of a constitution (thus limiting the possibility of fugitive slave freedom suits), but also that the territorial clause of the Constitution did not give Congress the ability to legislate on slavery, and also that any black man returned to a slave state had to abide by the laws of that state, and not whatever state or territory he previously resided. It was a tissue of tenuous arguments and borderline lies, which basically told the new Republican party that tried to limit slavery's expansion to disband. Counter to Taney's, and President James Buchanan's, hopes, it helped radicalize both sides and pushed the country closer to Civil War. I can't give this book full justice here, and its debates about residence vs. mere "sojourning" in free states and their effects on slave status, or the civil disability of blacks in the North and the South, or the nature of interstate comity and its effect on states' slavery rulings, but it will make the reader understand the intricate paths the country had to chart in reconciling its Constitution with slavery, and the new paths it had to chart to permanently divorce the two.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Brian Sandor

    The book on the Dred Scott Decision.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    * Understanding Oppression: African American Rights (Then and Now)

  11. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    A work of love for the writer. He explained a case that had been a mystery to me in law school. The ideas behind the case mirrored the divisions of America.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Fredrick Danysh

    This work looks at the importance of of a Supreme Court cases decision involving a slave named Dred Scott and its importance on the American political scene.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

    On the power of myth. Fehrenbacher's history of the Dred Scott case and its effects is well-researched, well-written, and not above taking a critical eye at everything from the actual legal significance of the case (overstated), the political impact of it (murky), and the legacy of the opinion's author (Taney). Fehrenbacher does a magisterial job in tracing the history of slave laws (pro and anti) throughout the country and how those issues (residence, conflict of laws, sojourning, etc) played ou On the power of myth. Fehrenbacher's history of the Dred Scott case and its effects is well-researched, well-written, and not above taking a critical eye at everything from the actual legal significance of the case (overstated), the political impact of it (murky), and the legacy of the opinion's author (Taney). Fehrenbacher does a magisterial job in tracing the history of slave laws (pro and anti) throughout the country and how those issues (residence, conflict of laws, sojourning, etc) played out in multiple states, with particular attention to Missouri--since that's where the case originated. Of critical importance to the work is how Southern attitudes towards slavery went from it being a practice reluctantly tolerated that the Constitution was bound to not interfere with to a positive good that the Constitution was *obligated* to protect via positive law. This gradual transition in thought impacted and infected nearly every strain of Southern thought in defense of slavery and ultimately made the South even more unwilling to compromise. Fehrenbacher does an outstanding job tracing the procedural history of the case along with detailed critiques of Taney's majority opinion as well as the concurring and dissenting opinions. Most interesting was the minimal importance Taney's oblique reference on "substantive due process" was to the actual opinion--though that is what most law schools have largely focused on (my own included). Fehrenbacher includes a very insightful mini-biography of Taney later in the work that would have worked better earlier as it helps give greater context to some of Taney's more curious (and grossly inaccurate) historical citations. Ultimately, Fehrenbacher doesn't ascribe to the notion that the Dred Scott case drove the nation to war, nor did it drive people to the Republican Party or split the Democratic Party--it was 1857 and secession was already a constant threat. The rise of the Republicans and the sundering of the Democrats owed more to the Lecompton Constitution controversy the following year (1858) rather than the Dred Scott decision itself. While Dred Scott and Taney gave anti-slavery forces an additional rhetorical arrow in the quiver, this work does an outstanding job of placing the opinion, and its impact, in the appropriate historical context.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Martin Lowery

    This was a very detailed book that serves as a history of slavery in America as an institution, a history of the Supreme Court, and a dissection and judicial review of one of the most controversial Supreme Court cases of it's time. While there is a lot of praise to be heaped on this book, there are large parts of it that for a modern reader, might provide less interests in its elaborations and discussions. For example, Feyrenbacher breaks the Dred Scott decision into 4 separate arguments. He then This was a very detailed book that serves as a history of slavery in America as an institution, a history of the Supreme Court, and a dissection and judicial review of one of the most controversial Supreme Court cases of it's time. While there is a lot of praise to be heaped on this book, there are large parts of it that for a modern reader, might provide less interests in its elaborations and discussions. For example, Feyrenbacher breaks the Dred Scott decision into 4 separate arguments. He then spends nearly 200 pages looking at and dissecting these 4 arguments to how the court arrived at their arguments. For example, the chapter covering the argument on whether African slaves were and ever could be citizens of the United States, Fehrenbacher dissects each word of Chief Justice Tanney and attempts to follow his logic to his ultimate conclusion. Whereas by today's standards it could aptly be assessed as merely white supremacy thinking, Fehrenbacher gives Taney the benefit of the doubt by analyzing various legal codes and political decisions that Taney attempted to argue in defense of his decision. As the book was written a decade after civil rights in the 70s, such extensive arguing would be to the benefit of those who held or still hold views that black Americans are not and cant be American citizens. The intellectualizing of the contradictions in Taneys ruling, and the misinterpretation of certain laws, could help bring a less enlightened person to a view that is more respectable. For people with modern sensibilities, they will find much of the analyzing to be pointless or redundant. As a history book, Fehrenbacher does an excellent job and laying out the situation of slavery leading up to the Dred Scott case and then the result of its decision post civil war. Many issues and arguments people took and made about the Supreme Court then are still seen today. Solutions made today were also made immediately after the decision, such as packing the court, ending lifetime appointment, and how the judges should be selected. It displays the notion of history as a circle, that what has happened before can happen again.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Rob Pedersen

    The book is divided into three sections, each roughly 200 pages. The first two sections are great... discussing the origins of the legal issues that arose in the case, then a review of the case and decision itself. The third section was a review of 'reactions' to the ruling. I thought this last section was about 100 pages too long. This section seemed to have trouble connecting to the rest of the narrative, as it didn't seem to 'fit'. The book is divided into three sections, each roughly 200 pages. The first two sections are great... discussing the origins of the legal issues that arose in the case, then a review of the case and decision itself. The third section was a review of 'reactions' to the ruling. I thought this last section was about 100 pages too long. This section seemed to have trouble connecting to the rest of the narrative, as it didn't seem to 'fit'.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Heidihark

  17. 5 out of 5

    Michael Dworkin

  18. 5 out of 5

    Lizzie W. Watson

  19. 5 out of 5

    C Baker

  20. 5 out of 5

    Michael Greening

  21. 5 out of 5

    Val

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey J. Lonsdale

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kenneth Knox

  24. 4 out of 5

    Pappy Lorenzo

  25. 5 out of 5

    Abe

  26. 4 out of 5

    Greg

  27. 5 out of 5

    Will

  28. 5 out of 5

    Tdr85

  29. 5 out of 5

    Stefan Krieger

  30. 5 out of 5

    Yvonne

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