Civil War Book Review: Slavery and the Supreme Court, 1825-1861

Slavery and the Supreme Court, 1825-1861
by Earl M. Maltz

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 362 pages
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas (November 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0700616667
  • ISBN-13: 978-0700616664

Given a choice of spending an afternoon reading legal history or in the dentist’s chair, many would have to think which would be worse.  I approached this as an important book in understanding the Civil War and a necessary read.  I expected a dull heavy tome, stuffed with legalese designed to cure insomnia.

Slavery and the Supreme Court, 1825-1861 by Earl M. MaltzThis book meets none of my expectations.

It is not dull.  We look at each case in the historical and legal context of the times.  The author never loses sight of the political, legal and personal considerations that matter so much in history.  This is a well-written look at the eight major cases involving slavery the Marshall and Taney Court considered.  When we reach the decision, we understand the forces involved and how they pulled the court.  The author provides excellent word portraits of each man, how he reaches the Court and his politics.

It is not stuffed with legalize.  The author uses the minimum legalize possible.  He takes the time to cover the meaning of the term as used at the time.  This keeps the reader current and makes for very little “huh?”

It will not cure insomnia.  This is not the same as reading about Pickett’s Charge but it moves and kept my attention.  This is legal history made interesting and enjoyable.

Slavery caused few legal problems until some states emancipated the slaves.  As America divided into Slave State or Free State, legal problems multiplied.  These problems come to the Supreme Court with greater frequency as war comes closer.  The relationship of the states and the federal government, status of slaves and questions involving free persons of color are major questions.  The Court tries to settle these questions as the opportunity arise.  The author takes the time to cover each legal question.  This allows him to show how the Court’s decision affects the nation.  In addition, he shows how dissenting opinions were developed.

1825 to 1861 is a lively time.  The nation is expanding, exploring and questioning.  Things we considered settled are open questions with no answer.  Nullification or something like it, disunion or something like it is nationwide.  A state’s answer to an issue often depends on the question being asked.  Chapter eight, fifteen and twenty asses the accomplishments and failures of the Court’s actions at a point in time.  The Court could not stop the process that lead to war.  However, the author shows that they tried to maintain the Union and settle the question of slavery.

The Foreword is nothing like the book!  The Foreword is an intemperate attack on the evil of slavery complete with comparing the South to the Third Reich.  It is nothing like the book and the publisher has done the author a disservice using it.  Do not expect the following book to have the attitudes of the Foreword.  The book is a clear balanced history of what happened during this time.  The author is not attacking but reporting and informing.

This is a very good book.  It will give the reader a clearer understanding of the legal issues involved and how the courts tried to deal with them.


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