Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford was one of the most critical cases in Supreme Court history, “an astonisher,” as Lincoln phrased it. In the “Opinion of the Court,” which was not actually the opinion of the Court (parts of it mustered only three votes), Chief Justice Taney stretched to insulate slavery in every way manageable. The ruling became instead an application of the “law of unintended consequences.” It led to the rise of Abraham Lincoln (who devoted much of his “House Undivided” speech to it), the destruction of Stephen Douglas’ presidential campaign (since it held his core position on slavery to be unconstitutional), the Civil War, and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
This article explores an aspect of the case that had been rarely explored in the past: was Dred Scott a collusive case? By this, I do not mean that both sides sought the same outcome; they clearly did not. Rather, both sides colluded to establish the Court’s jurisdiction, each side believing they could win.
John F. A. Sanford served as defendant; his nominal nature is illustrated by the fact that his name was mis-spelled as “Sandford” in the caption. He was a busy New York City businessman, running a new railroad, a bank, the largest fur trade company in the country, and a few other operations on the side. He stipulated to owning the Scott family, although it is unclear if he even knew them.
Sanford was necessary as a defendant because Scott’s real slaveholder was Sanford’s sister, Irene. She would not have wanted her role publicized, because she had since moved to Massachusetts and married a prominent anti-slavery congressman, Dr. Calvin Chaffee.
The effort to keep her identity secret failed in the end. Three days after the Court ruled, pro-slavery newspapers began running articles identifying the Chaffees as Dred Scott’s owners, and accusing the congressman of the ultimate in hypocrisy, an abolitionist who was a covert slaveowner. Calvin Chaffee initially protested that he knew nothing, then claimed his wife didn’t even know Scott was still alive. He then claimed that he’d had no control over the litigation, and ended by contacting Dred Scott’s attorney to secure the paperwork to free the Scott family.
Why pro-slavery elements would have colluded is easily seen. Given the makeup of the Court (a majority of which were slaveholders or former slaveholders, and all but one of which were Democratic appointees at a time when the Democrats favored slavery), the odds of a win were quite high. But why would anti-slavery forces wish to collude? The answer appears to be that Scott’s St. Louis attorney was unrealistically optimistic, and did not inform his Supreme Court attorney of the collusion until after the ruling. Moreover, until the first oral argument, the most dangerous question – did Congress have the power to forbid slavery in the territories – did not appear to be an issue. Until then, both parties proceeded on the assumption that the Scotts had been free when in a free territory, and the only issue was whether they were then free forever, or returned to slavery when they returned to slave state Missouri. From the anti-slavery viewpoint, then, damage done by a loss would be minimal, while a win would enable side-stepping of the draconian Fugitive Slave Act.
- Dred Scott,
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/david_hardy/7/