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Editorial response of the New York TRIBUNE to the Dred Scott decision, 12 March 1857

DOCUMENT DESCRIPTION

The Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, issued in March 1857, held that African Americans were not, and never could be, citizens of the United States. It also overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (already repealed by Congress), which had outlawed slavery in some of the territories. The Court held that the Constitution protected slaveholders' property interests in their slaves, and that Congress therefore could not prohibit slavery in the territories. The decision inflamed growing tensions between the North and South over the issues of slavery and the balance of power between the states and federal government. Here, the TRIBUNE of New York -- a Republican and abolitionist northern newspaper -- responds to the decision.

TRANSCRIPT

Divers newspapers of the Democratic and Dark-Lantern species are howling grievously at the audacity of those free people who dare to doubt the omniscience, the infallibility and the absolute disinterestedness of the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States; and we are sorry to say that here and there a journal, from which we had a right to expect a manlier course, is weak enough to be deluded into the language of acquiescence. It is assumed that Judges, because they are Judges, must always be in the right; that they are so far elevated above the level of ordinary mortality that we not only must not question -- nay more, that it is absolutely treason to question the correctness of their decisions; that all we have now to do is to fold our hands and submit without a murmur. Our readers have ere this discovered that we are under the control of no such abject idolatry; that we regard even that awful creature, a Chief-Justice, as a human being, and that we do not mean to submit slavishly to fraud and usurpation because the ermine is interposed to cloak their character. If there be any censure to bestow, let it fall, in the name of the eternal equities, upon those who have dragged their official robes in the kennels of slave-breeding politics! When we are ready to surrender sense and reason, conscience and intellect, and all pretension to mental and physical freedom; when we are ready to beslaver Bombast with praise, and to write the panegyric of the little Napoleon; then, and not till then, will we get on our knees to Roger Taney.

The acquiescent gentlemen say nothing very original -- nothing, in fact, which has not been uttered in all ages by the apologists of bad judges the spaniels of despotic courts. "This is the law," they say, "and to the law you must submit." This might be very conclusive if we were Medes or Persians; of if a judicial decision had never been reversed, and was incapable of revision. "What do you intend to do about it?" chimes in chorus the whole pack. That is a fair question, and we will answer it plainly. We mean to show that this Dred Scott decision is deficient in every element which should entitle it to respect -- that it violates the truth of history and the logic even of the law; and in our humble way, we mean to assist in getting it overruled. If that be justice, our carping critics must make the most of it. It is a treason in which Justices McLean and Curtis are equally implicated with ourselves. Both these gentlemen -- and more rigorously conservative judges never existed -- said distinctly that they did not consider the decisions of the Court to be binding upon questions not legitimately before it. The opinions of both these able men are before the public, and we do not believe that a single unprejudiced lawyer, who values in the least his professional reputation, would deny that the dissent of three judges is sustained in a way which does not leave the slaveholding magistrates a leg to stand upon. If we must admire and praise Supreme Justices, we prefer to be allowed to use our own discretion, and when tribunals differ, to select the side which shall have our support.

One would think, to read this fulsome flummery in the newspapers, that there had never been such a phenomenon as an unjust judge, whereas there is not a schoolboy who does not know that history is full of them -- that even in English annals corrupt tribunals have been the rule and not the exception -- that Bacon took bribes, that the Judges of the last Stuarts were cruel, oppressive and venal to the last degree, and that ever since the accession of the House of Hanover, there has been more than one Judge as heartless and tyrannical as he dared to be. There are, indeed, the Hales, the Holts, the Mansfields, and noble exceptions do they furnish; but there too are the Scroggs, the Jeffreys, the Eldens and the Norburys. The State trials of England are black with judicial insolence, ferocity and oppression. Is anybody deterred now from saying what he thinks of these monsters by the fact that they wore the regulation robes and wigs? And must we, while contemplating a great crime, hold our peace because those who have committed it happen to be living?

The position of an upright Judge who tempers the austerities of the law, and who has the heart to appreciate the large opportunities of his vocation, is one which is entitled to the respect of all good men. But a bad, a narrow-minded, a passionate or a prejudiced Judge, is the greatest curse which can be inflicted upon society. We say frankly that we do not believe that this Dred Scott decision, the most important every given in that tribunal, could have been wrenched from magistrates who were not under the undue influence of Slavery, and thinking so, we shall say so. It has come to a pretty pass, indeed, if this Court, created by the people, is to be considered as entirely above popular criticism as incapable of error, as utterly irresponsible. If this were so, we might as well give up the executive and legislative branches of the Government at once. Not so thought Jefferson, whose name is always in the mouths of Democrats, and who utterly denied the right of the Court to construe the Constitution for the coordinate branches aforesaid.

We hear much of the dangers of agitation. We admit them; but we know of another danger far greater, and that is the danger that our liberties may be subverted, our rights trampled upon; the spirit of our institutions utterly disregarded, and our great republican experiment turn out a disastrous failure. We confess that this danger particularly occupies our mind just about this time.