Malcom X

In June of 1857, the year before he would challenge Illinois Democrat and incumbent Senator Stephen A. Douglas for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Abraham Lincoln addressed the subject of Dred Scott and whether decisions of the Supreme Court should be challenged. Lincoln, was, famously, a lawyer and a good one. He revered the law. And up until the Dred Scott decision, issued by the Court months earlier in March of 1857, Lincoln was unhesitating in his support of judicial decisions. But deliberately, willfully inserting slavery into the Constitution — not based on the law but on the pro-slavery sentiments of the Court’s members, notably including Chief Justice Roger Taney — was a bridge too far for Lincoln. In writing his opinion on the case Taney had quite specifically made his bias plain, saying that African-Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald writes of Lincoln’s reaction this way:

“So blatant was the Chief Justice’s misreading of the law, so gross was his distortion of the documents fundamental to American liberty [meaning the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution], that Lincoln’s faith in an impartial, rational judiciary was shaken; never again did he give deference to the rulings of the Supreme Court.”

Not only was Lincoln done with his faith in giving “deference” to the idea of “an impartial, rational judiciary,” he used his speech to tear into Douglas (whom he refers to always as “Judge Douglas” in reference to Douglas’s earlier title as a Justice on the Illinois Supreme Court) for Douglas’s hypocrisy on the issue. In the wake of Dred Scott Douglas was an enthusiastic supporter of the Court’s decision. Lincoln accused Douglas and Chief Justice Taney of, in Herbert’s words, “working, together with other Democrats, to extend and perpetuate slavery.” With the Dred Scott case decided and slavery now, supposedly, enshrined in the Constitution forever, Douglas wanted no one to tamper with it — much less try and undo it.

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