We should think about the Supreme Court not as a separate and isolated institution, but rather as an integral and interconnected part of the federal political apparatus in the 19th century.
In her lecture “Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Politics of Slavery“, historian Rachel Shelden examined Lincoln’s relationship with the Supreme Court. The lecture is now available on the Kluge Center’s website and YouTube playlist.
Shelden is working on a political history of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, from roughly the 1830s to the 1890s. Sources and evidence in the Library of Congress demonstrate that the Court was an inherently political body during this period. Justices’ political behavior influenced their engagement with important issues, including slavery.
As a Senate candidate in 1858, Lincoln indicted Chief Justice Roger Taney in a conspiracy to spread slavery throughout the United States through the Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford. Whether Lincoln actually believed this accusation is still up for debate; there was political benefit to making such a charge. However the notion that this was implausible because the Court was simply a legal body deciding cases independent of politics turns out to be historically inaccurate. In fact, Lincoln knew then, and we know now, that the Court was intimately connected to other branches of government. As Shelden says in her lecture, “There were no stark lines separating senators from justices or even judge from lawyer.” Supreme Court Justices and Congressmen interacted professionally and socially on a continual basis in Washington, and lawyers in the antebellum period also tended to develop intimate relationships with Justices. So even though the Dred Scott conspiracy may not have happened, it certainly was possible that it could have happened. Perhaps Lincoln was telling the truth after all?
Click below to hear Shelden’s lecture on the subject
Rachel Shelden is Assistant Professor of American History at The University of Oklahoma. She is the author of “Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, & the Coming of the Civil War” and is working on a forthcoming political history of the Supreme Court. In 2015, she was a Kluge Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center.