Some readers of the previous blog have asked about the crucial court case which moved the North and the South beyond ability to compromise. It was the Dred Scott decision in 1857 which ruled first that descendants of slaves were not citizens and could not sue. The opinion by Chief Justice Taney went on to add that although Dred Scott lived in the free state of Illinois for two years, he was not free. He refers to the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution which states that no person can be deprived of property without due process of law.
Quoting the Taney decision, “And no word can be found in the Constitution which gives Congress a greater power over slave property, or which entitles property of that kind to less protection than property of any other description….Upon these considerations, it is the opinion of this court that the act of Congress which prohibited a citizen from holding and owning property of this kind in the territory of the United States north of the line therein mentioned, is not warranted by the Constitution, and is therefore void…”
Northern states were shocked and objected strongly. This quickly became a political issue which dominated the Presidential election of 1860. The Democratic party was strongest in the South, but at their nominating convention, the early favorite, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, faced strong opposition from delegates of Southern states and was not able to obtain the required two thirds vote. At a second Democratic convention, after Southern delegates walked out, Douglas was nominated. The “Fire-eaters” of the South then met to nominate John Breckinridge on a platform that called for no restrictions on slavery. A slightly more moderate Southern group later nominated John Bell of Tennessee. Most Southern states did not send delegates to the Republican Convention which nominated Abraham Lincoln.
The election of Lincoln led to the secession of South Carolina, soon followed by other Southern states. In early February, 1861, Southern states created a new government and for a few months, two countries: United States of America and Confederate States of America existed peacefully within our borders.