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Dred Scott v. Sandford: An Astonisher of Legal History

Dred Scott

An exhibition to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of Dred Scott v. Sandford

Harvard Law School Library
Caspersen Room
April 2, 2007 — June 30, 2007
Monday — Friday, 9:00am — 5:00pm

Unquestionably the most controversial decision ever rendered by the United States Supreme Court, Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), is also one of the most important cases in American constitutional history. It was, in Cass Sunstein’s words, “the first Supreme Court case since Marbury v. Madison invalidating a federal law. Since Marbury created judicial review in the context of a denial of jurisdiction, Dred Scott might plausibly be said to be the first real exercise of the power of judicial review.” Moreover, it was “the birthplace of the controversial idea of ‘substantive due process’” and “one of the first great cases unambiguously using the ‘intent of the framers,’ and in that sense it was the great precursor of the method of Justice Antonin Scalia and Judge Robert Bork” (Great Cases in Constitutional Law, p. 65).

A century and a half of analysis of the great issues of the case and its role in hastening the Civil War, however, has largely overlooked the individuals themselves whose motivations precipitated the decision. The present exhibition briefly examines the biographies of the key figures in the case—the litigants and their lawyers, the judges, and the contemporary apologists and critics of a decision so controversial that it led Abraham Lincoln to argue in mock seriousness:

The sacredness that Judge Douglas throws around this decision is a degree of sacredness that has never been before thrown around any other decision. I have never heard of such a thing. Why, decisions apparently contrary to that decision, or that good lawyers thought were contrary to that decision, have been made by that very court before. It is the first of its kind; it is an astonisher in legal history. It is a new wonder of the world.
A. Lincoln, Speech in Chicago, July 10, 1858

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