History remembers Samuel Nelson most for his role in the Court’s decision of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). When Dred Scott, a slave, argued before the Court that his travels with his master into free territory had made him free once he returned to Missouri, a slave state, a majority of the Court seemed initially poised to decide the case on technical grounds. Nelson took the position that Missouri law controlled the question of Scott’s status as a slave and that the Court had no jurisdiction to override the state’s determination in this matter, which was adverse to Scott’s claim. In fact, Nelson prepared an initial draft of an opinion for the Court, resolving the case on this ground. But the other members of the Court eventually decided to address the core issues posed by the case: whether blacks were citizens of the United States and thus entitled to invoke the Court’s jurisdiction; and whether the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which limited slavery in certain territories, violated the Constitution. At the suggestion of Justice James M. Wayne, a majority of the Court chose to decide these controversial questions, ultimately ruling that Dred Scott, because he was black, could not be a citizen of the United States and that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. Nelson, however, persisted in his belief that the case should be resolved more circumspectly and submitted his original opinion for the Court as his own separate opinion in the case. Though his opinion did not earn him the same blistering attacks heaped on Chief Justice Taney and the other justices who followed the reasoning of Taney, many Northern observers chastised Nelson for ruling against Dred Scott. An editorial from the New York Tribune dismissed him as a timid jurist who had failed to stand up for the truth: “. . . a New York Democrat of the perishing school. . . . He hesitated to go with the Southern Judges in their revolutionary opinions, yet he had not sufficient virtue to boldy stand up against their heresies.” History has not rescued Nelson from this judgment.
The national resolution of the slavery debate that Taney and his colleagues hoped to achieve through the Dred Scott decision never materialized. As the country stood on the precipice of war, Nelson again sought some intermediate resolution that would stave off conflict. He served for a time with Justice John Campbell of Alabama as an intermediary in discussions between President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, and a confederate delegation concerning federal occupation of Fort Sumter in South Carolina. When Seward failed to keep a commitment to remove federal troops from the fort, Nelson abandoned his role as a mediator, and war soon followed.
In the face of Lincoln’s vigorous attempts to subdue Southern rebellion, Nelson preferred strict adherence to constitutional principles even if this meant allowing Southern states to withdraw from the Union, which, he thought, could not be preserved by force. When Lincoln took the contrary view and blockaded Southern ports even before a congressional declaration of war, Nelson sided with the minority of the Court that thought the president had overstepped his constitutional bounds. In the Prize Cases (1863), he joined with justices Taney, Catron, and Clifford in a dissent from the majority holding that Lincoln’s blockage was justified. Writing for the dissenters, Justice Nelson agreed that Congress alone had the constitutional power to declare war and that, in the absence of such a declaration, Lincoln’s vigorous action was illegitimate.
Party affiliation: Democratic