Ohio History Journal

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9





The Collapse of the Peculiar

Institution Through Military

and Legal Action





Before May 1861 the right of slavery to exist as an institution in the states and terri-

tories was an axiom of American constitutional law. This resulted, in part, from the

highly controversial Dred Scott decision of 1857. Speaking for a divided court,

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that Scott, an African slave, could not sue in a

federal court to obtain his freedom on grounds that Blacks were not citizens of the

United States within the meaning of the Constitution. Furthermore, slaves were

property protected by the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. Taney con-

cluded that depriving a citizen (Scott's owner) of his liberty or property "merely be-

cause he came himself or brought his property into a particular territory of the

United States, and who had committed no offense against the laws, could hardly be

dignified within the name due process of law."1 It is only necessary here to note

that the case of Dred Scott immediately posed legal and political questions that

haunted both the North and South throughout the sectional crisis and the Civil


Although slavery had received judicial sanction in 1857, those opposed to human

bondage persisted in challenging its continuance. Also, as the impending crisis be-

came more apparent, further attempts were made between December 1860 and

April 1861 to help preserve the peculiar institution and thereby mollify the South

and defuse a very explosive situation. Despite a gallant attempt by Congress to ef-

fect a satisfactory compromise between the North and South, all efforts to achieve

peace failed.

Because President-elect Abraham Lincoln hoped to avoid a military conflict be-

tween the states, his official policy on slavery was that of non-governmental inter-

ference. In his first inaugural address, March 4, 1861, Lincoln tried to reassure

slave owners: "Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern

States, that the accession of a Republican Administration, their property, and their

peace, and personal security, are to be endangered ... 'I have no purpose, directly



1. Dred Scott v. Sanford, 19 Howard 393, pp. 400-454.

Mr. Jackson is Assistant Professor of Black and Legal History at Miami University of Ohio. This pa-

per was presented at the Fifty-eighth Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Afro-American

Life and History at New York, 1973. It was made possible in part through a research grant from the

American Philosophical Society.