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Dred Scott, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and the election of 1860

In the few years prior to the Civil War, an infamous Supreme Court decision, close Senate race, and monumental presidential election defined the terms for the imminent national conflict.


  • In 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that Black people could never be citizens of the United States in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case.
  • The Dred Scott decision further heightened tensions between the North and the South, and became a central issue within Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas’s contest for an Illinois Senate seat.
  • Although Douglas ultimately won the Senate race, the Lincoln-Douglas debates put Abraham Lincoln in the national spotlight, leading to his nomination for president in the election of 1860.

Dred Scott v. Sandford

In 1857, the Supreme Court decided the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Dred Scott, born in slavery in Virginia in 1795, had been one of the thousands forced to relocate as a result of the massive internal slave trade.
His first enslaver, Peter Blow, sold him to John Emerson, who took Scott and his wife to Missouri, where slavery had been adopted as part of the Missouri Compromise. But in 1820, John Emerson left Scott with his brother John Sanford (misspelled Sandford in court papers), who took Scott to Illinois and then to the Wisconsin territory. Critically, both of those regions were part of the Northwest Territory, where the 1787 Northwest Ordinance had outlawed slavery. When Scott returned to Missouri, he sued in the state courts for his freedom. He claimed that his residence in a free territory made him a free man. His case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
This 1888 portrait by Louis Schultze shows Dred Scott, who fought for his freedom through the American court system. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In 1857, the Supreme Court—led by Chief Justice Roger Taney, a former slaveholder—handed down its decision. On the question of whether Scott was free, the Supreme Court decided he remained enslaved. The court then went beyond the specific issue of Scott’s freedom to make a sweeping and momentous judgment about the status of Black people, both free and enslaved, arguing that Black people could never be citizens of the United States.
Further, the court ruled that Congress had no authority to stop or limit the spread of slavery into American territories. This proslavery ruling explicitly made the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates

The turmoil in Kansas, combined with the furor over the Dred Scott decision, provided the background for the 1858 senatorial contest in Illinois between Democratic senator Stephen Douglas and Republican hopeful Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln and Douglas engaged in seven debates throughout Illinois before huge crowds. Newspapers throughout the United States published their speeches. Whereas Douglas already enjoyed national recognition, Lincoln remained largely unknown before the debates.
Abraham Lincoln, left, and Stephen Douglas, right, at the time of their face-off. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Douglas argued that the Republicans posed a dangerous threat to the Constitution. Indeed, because Lincoln declared the nation could not survive if the slave state–free state division continued, Douglas claimed the Republicans aimed to destroy what the founders had created.
Lincoln, on the other hand, stood firmly on the side of the Union, giving his famous “House Divided” speech, in which he said:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half Slave and half Free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction: or its advocates will push it forward till it shall became alike lawful in all the States—old as well as new, North as well as South.”
Lincoln interpreted the Dred Scott decision and the Kansas-Nebraska Act as efforts to nationalize slavery: that is, to make it legal everywhere from New England to the Midwest and beyond.
Lincoln's speeches during his debates with Douglas also shed light on his beliefs about slavery and race at the time:
"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality. . . . I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. . . .
"[N]otwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. . . . [I]n the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man."
Although Douglas ultimately won the seat, the debates propelled Lincoln into the national political spotlight. These appearances provided an opportunity for him to raise his profile with both Northerners and Southerners.

The election of 1860

The Dred Scott decision opened up huge sectional divisions among Democrats, leaving an opening for a different party’s candidate to win the presidency. The Democratic Party became so divided that they ran two candidates in the election of 1860: Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas, while southern Democrats nominated John Breckinridge. This split the Democratic ticket in half, giving the Republicans, who nominated Abraham Lincoln, a huge advantage.
Also hoping to prevent a Republican victory, pro-Unionists from the border states organized the Constitutional Union Party and put up a fourth candidate, John Bell, for president, who pledged to end slavery agitation and preserve the Union but never fully explained how he would accomplish this objective. Although Lincoln only won 40 percent of the popular vote, he gained a majority in the Electoral College, winning the election of 1860.
A map of the breakdown of electoral votes cast in the election of 1860. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Crittenden Compromise

Lincoln’s election prompted Southern states to begin leaving the Union.
In December 1860, Kentucky Senator John Crittenden proposed a final attempt to keep the southern states from seceding before the Civil War broke out. The Crittenden Compromise aimed to end debates over slavery and its expansion forever by enshrining slavery in the Constitution and stipulating that it could not be abolished. The Crittenden Compromise would have reestablished slavery in all states south of the 36°30′ line, and made slavery illegal in all states north of the boundary, effectively reinstating the Missouri Compromise. But it failed to pass Congress, and Lincoln rejected it.
The Crittenden Compromise was the last attempt to mitigate sectional divisions over slavery before the Civil War erupted.

What do you think?

How did the Dred Scott decision contribute to bubbling tensions between the North and the South?
How would you characterize Lincoln’s position on racial equality during the Lincoln-Douglass debates? What types of equality exist, according to Lincoln?
Why do you think the Crittenden Compromise fail to solve the secession crisis?

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