The President Behind the US Supreme Court’s Worst Decision

The President Behind the US Supreme Court’s Worst Decision

Why you should care

Because judicial independence exists for a reason.

An OZY original series examines how presidents have crossed ethical lines for centuries.Presidential transgressions are as old as the republic. This OZY original series looks at how U.S. history rhymes with today's drama.

As a work of presidential prose, James Buchanan’s inaugural address on March 4, 1857, is widely considered one of the most forgettable ever given by an American leader. As The New York Times put it dryly at the time: “Little if any impression has been made by the inaugural.” Still, it would not take long for Buchanan’s unimpressive inauguration to become one of the most significant in history. For one thing, it was the first to be photographed. It was also the first inaugural given after the creation of the Republican Party, the last before secession and ultimately the last one that a Democrat would give for almost 30 years.

Buchanan’s oath of office was also administered by Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney. Yes, that Justice Taney, the one who just two days later would hand down the Supreme Court’s landmark Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, in which the court held that Congress had no power to deprive slaveholders in U.S. territories of their property — because, as Taney put it, Blacks were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the White man was bound to respect.”

Buchanan had for weeks been busy behind the scenes orchestrating the result …

In his address, Buchanan anticipated that forthcoming decision, opining that the question of slavery in U.S. territories was “happily, a matter of but little practical importance” and saying he would “cheerfully submit” to the Supreme Court resolving it “speedily and finally.” But, in truth, Buchanan had not submitted to anything. Far from being the cheerful and passive chief executive deferring to judicial authority, Buchanan had for weeks been busy behind the scenes orchestrating the result in Dred Scott, lobbying for what is arguably the worst decision in U.S. Supreme Court history. Buchanan’s actions serve as a stark reminder of what can go wrong when a president meddles in the business of the separate, and ostensibly, apolitical judicial branch.

It’s hard to exaggerate the impact that the Dred Scott decision had on American history. The decision, in which a 7-2 majority of the court declared the Missouri Compromise (under which Congress allowed one slave state to be admitted to the Union alongside one free state) unconstitutional, helped put the country on the path to civil war. The court’s ruling had been postponed until after the inauguration — after pressure from Buchanan. And it turns out, the president-elect had been lobbying the court for much more than that. A long-serving diplomat, Buchanan hoped he could alleviate the tension over the expansion of slavery by convincing the American people to let the Supreme Court have the last word on the subject. But Buchanan knew that if the decision (from a court composed of five Southerners and four Northerners) came down along party lines, or was too narrow in scope, it would be far less impactful.

So Buchanan, who had close personal ties with many on the court — including the chief justice and Justice Robert Cooper Grier of Pennsylvania, both alumni of Dickinson College like the president-elect — set about twisting some judicial arms in the run-up to his inauguration. Thanks to Buchanan’s efforts, Taney, Grier and five other justices threw their weight behind a decision that would not only nullify the Missouri Compromise (only the second Supreme Court decision to invalidate an act of Congress) but also help legitimize the institution of slavery. In fact, right before Taney administered Buchanan’s oath of office at the inauguration, the two men briefly conversed on the Capitol stairs, according to witnesses, and it is believed that Buchanan updated his speech to reflect Taney’s confirmation that the court would issue a broader holding in Dred Scott in a matter of days.

Such extra-constitutional influence on the court by a president (or president-elect) was just as inappropriate in Buchanan’s day as it would be in ours. But the diplomat in Buchanan pressed forward anyway, treating the North and South almost as if they were separate countries whose interests needed to be resolved once and for all by an international tribunal. In the end, however, Buchanan’s diplomacy would prove deeply misguided. “He foolishly believed the Supreme Court could do what Congress and the presidency had not,” says Michael L. Carrafiello, a history professor at Miami University: “Provide a final solution to the slavery question.”

Far from imposing a final solution, Dred Scott, says Carrafiello, was the beginning of the end of the Union, pulling the rug out from under those hoping to find a “middle way,” emboldening Southern slaveholders and forcing abolitionists to redouble their efforts. Before long, war would become inevitable, and, as Carrafiello puts it, “Buchanan bears a large part of the blame because of his blunder in relying on the court.”

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