A Fatal Loss of Balance: Dred Scott Revisited
36 Pages Posted: 11 Mar 2011 Last revised: 14 Feb 2012
Date Written: March 10, 2011
This essay focuses on three aspects of the Dred Scott opinion: its effort to ensure that blacks could never be citizens, let alone equal ones; its deployment of a "limited government" argument for a narrow interpretation of Congress's enumerated power over the territories; and its path-breaking defense of property rights against government regulation. These constitutional tropes of racism, narrowing of federal power, and protection of property were to remain dominant for another seventy-five years. Apart from the failings of the opinion itself, Dred Scott also represents an extraordinary case of presidential tampering with the judicial process and a breakdown in fair procedure within the Court itself.
Taney's exercise in originalism highlights some pitfalls that present-day originalists would do well to avoid. His effort to read all of the Constitution through a states' rights, pro-slavery lense also dramatizes the risks of foundationalism. Taney's opinion lacks any sense of balance - a failing at any time for a judge, but particularly dangerous when the nation is poised over a historic abyss.
Keywords: Dred Scott, congressional power, slavery, originalism, citizenship
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