Supreme Court: Argument for the Status Quo

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13873

SCOTUS has the power to change U.S. law with a single decision, but it can also be a force against change. Explore how the court's legal reasoning can maintain the status quo long after it should.


Government, History, Writing

English / Language Arts
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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The map below shows which states in America allowed slavery and which were undecided in 1857:

map of free, enslaved, and undecided states 1857

By the 1850s, a tentative solution to the issue of enslaving people had been found between the southern and northern states.

However, just as the South was slowly realizing slavery would eventually need to end, the Supreme Court dealt a huge blow to enslaved people and supported the status quo in 1857.

  • How did the Supreme Court support enslaving people?

Let's find out.


Roger B. Taney, circa 1855

Image [cropped] by Mathew Brady, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

If you asked Chief Justice Roger Taney (above) or any of the members of the court in 1857, they all would have said that they voted on cases based on legal reasoning and what the Constitution says.

In this same year, enslaved African-American Dred Scott sued his "owner", John Sandford, because he thought he should have been freed.

Scott thought Sandford should have freed him because they traveled to Illinois, which was a free territory wherein slavery was not permitted.

Dred Scott's Argument

sculpture of Dred and Harriet Scott

Image by Ron Cogswell, via Flickr, is licensed under the CC BY 2.0 license.

Dred Scott asserted that he became a U.S. citizen when he entered the free territory because slavery could not exist in Illinois and, therefore, he had to be freed.

While this sounds like a very logical argument, it violated the Fugitive Slave Law that had been passed seven years earlier.

As you watch The Fugitive Slave Law, from NBC News Learn, to learn what this was and how it affected Dred Scott, pay attention to the role of financial incentives:

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As part of a compromise to keep the South happy, Americans were heavily encouraged to return enslaved people back to their owners in slave states.

Dred Scott v. Sandford

Supreme Court marble columns

  • How was this case different from the Fugitive Slave Law?

Scott had not run away. He was legally challenging the status of his enslavement on the grounds that he had become a citizen when he was brought into Illinois territory by Sandford.

  • So, what did the court decide?

Seven of the nine justices voted against Dred Scott and stated that he had no legal standing to challenge his enslavement.

Read this excerpt from the majority opinion for Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856) written by Chief Justice Taney, courtesy of JUSTIA:

We think ... that [black people] are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word "citizens" in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time [of America's founding] considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.

  • What is going on in this excerpt?

This argument appealed to logos in an attempt to justify not counting African-Americans as citizens. Taney tried to use the logic of the Constitution against Dred Scott when he wrote that the founders clearly did not include enslaved people when they spoke of "citizens", so there was no legal standing for an enslaved person to think of themselves as a citizen.

Taney went on to write that if the federal government wished to change that status, Congress could do so. However, the Supreme Court was not willing to assert that enslaved people were constitutionally included in the definition of citizen.

  • Why might the justices have been unwilling to change the status quo in this instance?

Given that tensions were high over the institution of slavery and that the Fugitive Slave Law was already in place, the Supreme Court justices did not want to be the ones to establish the precedent that enslaved people were citizens.

As you continue on to the Got It? section, consider the following:

  • How could this reasoning be used in a progressive way to grant enslaved people citizenship?
  • How did Taney use an appeal to logos to strengthen his argument?
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