At his inauguration on March 4, 1857, James Buchanan endorsed the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford. Scott was an enslaved African-American man who had sued for his freedom, saying that because he had lived for four years in states and territories where slavery was illegal, he should be emancipated.
In what is widely acknowledged to be a shameful moment in American racial and legal history, on this day 160 years ago the United States Supreme Court ruled against Scott, declaring that all black people “were not and could never become citizens of the United States,” writes PBS. Therefore, Scott had no grounds to sue in the first place, the court said.
Abolitionists were furious, and the decision was one of the factors in destroying the balance between North and South, igniting the Civil War which began in 1861. That wasn’t the outcome Buchanan sought when he put his thumb on the scales of justice to influence the case’s outcome, according to a biography published by the White House Historical Association.
Buchanan thought he could make the friction between slave- and non-slave-holding parts of the country disappear by convincing the public “to accept constitutional law as the Supreme Court interpreted it,” it reads.
In his inaugural address two days before the decision, Buchanan said that the question of where slaves could or could not be held was “happily a matter of but little practical importance” about to be settled “speedily and finally” by the Supreme Court.
In the decision that followed that address two days later, the Supreme Court said that because Scott was black he was not a citizen and the Declaration of Independence precept that “all men are created equal” did not apply to him or other black people. Seven of the nine judges on the Supreme Court voted in favor of this decision, which was put into writing by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a staunch supporter of slavery.
Buchanan started working to influence the outcome of the Dred Scott decision in early February 1857, writes Jean H. Baker in her biography of the fifteenth American president. He wrote to Justice John Catron, his friend and a Supreme Court judge from Tennessee, asking about the status of the case. It was the beginning of a larger plan, she writes:
Following Catron’s advice, a few weeks before his inauguration the president-elect wrote to Justice Grier, urging a comprehensive judgment that moved beyond the particulars of Dred Scott’s individual status into that of all black Americans—slave and free, North and South. If a decision was reached, he wanted to use it as a turning point for a triumphant program of national harmony.
With pressure from Buchanan, Grier, Catron and four other justices threw their support behind a decision that did what he had wanted, and created a broader policy legitimizing slavery while nullifying the Missouri Compromise which had prohibited slavery in some U.S. territories.
If Buchanan had not tried to directly influence the Supreme Court—something that was then considered highly inappropriate, as it would be today—Grier, a Northerner, might have also dissented, she writes, meaning the decision would have been split along party lines. That would have weakened the decision and left it open for a future challenge.