Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.
As we said
last week, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania won the presidential election of
eighteen fifty-six. He defeated John Fremont, the candidate of the newly
created Republican Party, which opposed slavery.
a Democrat, had often supported the South in the dispute over slavery. Most of
the new president's closest friends were southerners. He wrote that the North
was too aggressive toward the South and should stop interfering in the slave
said the South had good reason to leave the Union if abolitionists continued
their attacks against slavery.
on our series, Jack Moyles and Stan Busby tell more about James Buchanan. And
they discuss his influence in the Supreme Court ruling in the case of a slave
from Missouri named Dred Scott.
As the new
president, Buchanan believed he could solve the slave question by keeping the abolitionists
quiet. Success would mean the end of the anti-slavery Republican Party.
choosing his cabinet, Buchanan wanted men who shared the same ideas and
interests. President Pierce had tried to unite the different groups in the
party by giving each a representative in his cabinet. This had not worked. It
had driven the different party groups farther apart.
had served in President Polk's cabinet. He remembered how well its members
worked together. He said it was the unity of this cabinet that made Polk's
administration so successful.
gave the job of Secretary of State to Lewis Cass of Michigan. Cass was
seventy-five years old. His mind had lost its sharpness. This did not worry
Buchanan, because he had planned to be his own foreign minister.
The job of
treasury secretary went to Howell Cobb, a southern moderate from Georgia. Southerners
also were named as secretary of war, interior secretary and postmaster general.
Toucey of Connecticut was given the job of Navy secretary. Toucey was a
northerner. But he supported many policies of the South. Another northerner --
Jeremiah Black of Pennsylvania -- became attorney general.
his cabinet, Buchanan did not ask for advice from Senator Stephen Douglas of
Illinois. Douglas was the party's leader in the Senate and the most powerful
Democrat in the northwest.
believed that the northwest should have two representatives in the cabinet. He
said Cass could be one of them. But Douglas wanted one of his own supporters to
be the other. Buchanan refused what Douglas wanted. And he gave the
administration's support to a political enemy of Douglas.
Buchanan was sworn-in as president on March fourth, eighteen fifty-seven. In
his inaugural speech, the new president denounced the long dispute over
slavery. He said he hoped it would end soon.
said the dispute could be settled easily by doing two things: by ending
interference with slavery in states where it was legal. And by letting the
people of a territory decide if they wanted slavery.
said he expected the Supreme Court to rule soon on the right of the people of a
territory to decide this. He said he was sure that all good citizens -- North
and South -- would accept the high court's ruling.
time he said this, Buchanan already knew what the court's decision would be. He
had even used his influence to help one member of the court to decide. The
decision was made in the case of Dred Scott, a negro slave.
sold in Missouri to an army doctor who took him to Illinois and then went into
the Wisconsin territory. Scott lived in these two places for almost four years
before he was returned to Missouri.
asked a court in Missouri to give him his freedom. He claimed that living in
Illinois and Wisconsin -- where slavery was illegal -- had made him a free man.
agreed with Scott and gave him his freedom. But the decision was appealed, and
the Supreme Court of Missouri ruled against him. Scott then took his case to a
federal court. Finally, he asked the United States Supreme Court to decide if
he was a slave or a free man.
Supreme Court took up the case in December, eighteen fifty-six. The judges
studied it carefully because it raised serious constitutional questions.
claimed he was free because he had lived in free territory. It was free because
Congress -- in the Missouri Compromise of Eighteen Twenty -- made slavery illegal
in that area. Scott's owner raised the questions: Did Congress have the
Constitutional power to close a territory to slavery? Was the Missouri
most of the nine Supreme Court judges had planned to give a decision without
answering this question. They did not want to involve the court in this bitter
dispute. The majority decided that a negro was not a citizen. Therefore, they
said, Dred Scott had no right to ask the court to hear his case.
way, the case could be settled without deciding on the power of Congress to act
on slavery in the territories.
But two of
the nine Supreme Court judges opposed this ruling. Both were from the North.
They had said they would write a minority decision. They said their decision
would include a statement that Congress did have power over slavery in the
members of the court had planned to offer views on this question, the other
seven decided the majority also should do so.
seven, five were from the South. They did not believe Congress had any power
over territorial slavery. The remaining two judges -- both from the North --
did not want to make what they felt would be a political decision.
southern member of the Supreme Court was James Catron, a good friend of James
Buchanan. Buchanan had written to him asking when the court would act on the
Dred Scott case.
answered that the court would rule soon. Then he asked for Buchanan's help in
getting one of the northern members of the court to vote with the five from the
South. He told the president that the country would more easily accept the
court's ruling if one of the northern judges gave his support. Catron proposed
that Buchanan write to Justice Robert Grier of Pennsylvania.
Buchanan wrote to Grier. He told him that a strong decision in the Dred Scott
case might do much to bring peace to the country. Grier agreed. He said he
would vote with the five southerners. They would rule that the Constitution did
not give Congress power over slavery in the territories.
had happened in the few weeks before Buchanan became president.
Court finally announced its decision just two days after Buchanan moved into
the White House. Chief Justice Roger Taney read the decision in the small
courtroom in the Capitol building.
was crowded with congressmen, senators, government officials, and newspapermen.
Chief Justice Taney began reading the decision at eleven o'clock. He read for
more than two and a half hours.
the high court rejected Scott's claim of freedom for three reasons. First,
Scott was not a citizen. Taney said the Constitution gave the right of
citizenship only to members of the white race. Because he was not a citizen, he
had no right to ask the court to hear his case.
Taney said Scott was ruled by the laws of Missouri, the state in which he
lived. Missouri laws did not give freedom to slaves who lived temporarily in
free territory. Therefore, said Taney, Scott was still a slave.
Then the chief justice took up the question of the free territory in which Scott had
lived. It had become free territory under the Missouri Compromise. This was the
law that Congress passed in eighteen twenty. This law kept slavery out of the
northern part of the territory which the United States bought from France.
Taney said Congress did not have the constitutional power to pass such a law.
He said when new territory was won, it belonged to all citizens. He said
Congress had the right to govern such territory until it became a state. But he
said Congress did not have power to close new territory to any American
citizen. He said the citizen from Georgia had as much right to settle in this
territory with his slaves as a citizen of Maine with his horse.
there was no word in the Constitution that gave Congress greater power over
slave property than over any other kind of property. The only such power
Congress held was the power to guard and protect the rights of the property
territory to slaves, Taney said, violated the constitutional rights of
slaveholding citizens. Therefore, the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.
Congress did not have power to act on slavery in the territories.
Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Jack
Moyles and Stan Busby. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs can be
found, along with historical images, at voaspecialenglish.com. And you can
follow our series on Twitter at twitter.com/voalearnenglish, spelled as one
word. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history
series in VOA Special English.
This is program #84 of
MAKING OF A NATION