THE DRED SCOTT CASE: Its Significance in American Law and Politics by Don E. Fehrenbacher

THE DRED SCOTT CASE: Its Significance in American Law and Politics

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Fehrenbacher, a Lincoln biographer and professor of history at Stanford, has written a masterfully researched legal-historical account of the Dred Scott decision--a work long overdue considering the implications of the 1857 Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the Missouri Compromise's restrictions on slavery and maintained that Negroes were not citizens. Still, some will find the book overlong. Ostensibly writing on Dred Scott, the author devotes one-fourth of the work to an overview, from 1619 to 1857, of slavery, slave law, and territorial expansion. Here, Fehrenbacher's stimulating insights on such matters as the Wilmot Proviso are partial compensation. When he finally comes to Court, few details are left out. In substance, Fehrenbacher convincingly contends that Chief Justice Taney's majority opinion, negating major federal legislation and seeking to resolve a major political crisis, anticipates the judiciary's law-making or crisis-resolution function during the era of the Warren Court. Chief Justice Marshall, the author notes, had upheld judicial review, but had never ruled major federal laws unconstitutional. The rest of Fehrenbacher's findings are less broad. Unlike many historians, he persuasively minimizes the decision's effect on the political parties or Lincoln's election, and as a cause of the Civil War. Although Taney's reputation has been rehabilitated in this century, Fehrenbacher portrays him as a bitter polemicist who died in 1864 still sympathetic to slavery and Southern secession. Hated at the time of his death, Taney nevertheless failed to destroy the Court's reputation. We have then, finally, the definitive account, often exhausting, yet generally worth the struggle.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1978
ISBN: 0195145887
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press