Limits to the authoritativeness of a single Supreme Court decision, as described by Abraham Lincoln

Less than four months before Abraham Lincoln's June 26, 1857 Speech at Springfield, Illinois, the Supreme Court had issued its decision on Dred Scott v. Sandford. Chief Justice Roger Taney elucidated the majority opinion in the 7-2 decision, writing 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.

Many Northern opponents of slavery refused to recognize the Dred Scott decision as binding, including Abraham Lincoln, then a prominent figure in the Illinois Republican Party. Senator Stephen Douglas (Democratic Party, Illinois) had denounced opponents of the decision, stating … whoever resists the final decision of the highest judicial tribunal, aims a deadly blow to our whole Republican system of government---a blow, which if successful would place all our rights and liberties at the mercy of passion, anarchy and violence.

In his Speech at Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln opened his rebuttal to those accusations as follows:

He denounces all who question the correctness of that decision, as offering violent resistance to it. But who resists it? Who has, in spite of the decision, declared Dred Scott free, and resisted the authority of his master over him?

According to Lincoln, Northern opponents of slavery weren't resisting federal authority as represented by the Supreme Court decision. What then were they doing? What practical difference did their refusal to accept the correctness of the decision make?

Understand the fineness of this distinction: Lincoln and other opponents of the Dred Scott decision were only challenging the authoritativeness of the Supreme Court ruling for use as a precedent in future rulings.


Judicial decisions have two uses---first, to absolutely determine the case decided, and secondly, to indicate to the public how other similar cases will be decided when they arise. For the latter use, they are called ‘precedents’ and ‘authorities’.

Judicial decisions are of greater or less authority as precedents, according to circumstances. That this should be so, accords both with common sense, and the customary understanding of the legal profession.

Lincoln based his refusal to accept the Supreme Court decision as a precedent on grounds that sound reasons existed for challenging the correctness of the ruling:

If this important decision had been made by the unanimous concurrence of the judges, and without any apparent partisan bias, and in accordance with legal public expectation, and with the steady practice of the departments throughout our history, and had been in no part, based on assumed historical facts which are not really true; or, if wanting in some of these, it had been before the court more than once, and had there been affirmed and re-affirmed through a course of years, it then might be, perhaps would be, factious, nay, even revolutionary, to not acquiesce in it as a precedent.

But when, as it is true we find it wanting in all these claims to the public confidence, it is not resistance, it is not factious, it is not even disrespectful, to treat it as not having yet quite established a settled doctrine for the country …

He demonstrated the legality of rejecting a Supreme Court decision in this manner by citing the example set by Andrew Jackson, while serving as seventh President of the United States. The Supreme Court had ruled that a national bank was constitutional. Andrew Jackson, as President, disregarded that decision and vetoed a bill for the renewal of the national bank's charter, partly on constitutional ground, declaring that each public functionary must support the U.S. Constitution as he understands it.

Abraham Lincoln, in his speech of June 26, 1857, cited the following excerpt from President Andrew Jackson's veto message:

It is maintained by the advocates of the bank, that its constitutionality, in all its features, ought to be considered as settled by precedent, and by the decision of the Supreme Court. To this conclusion I cannot assent. Mere precedent is a dangerous source of authority, and should not be regarded as deciding questions of constitutional power, except where the acquiescence of the people and the States can be considered as well settled. So far from this being the case on this subject, an argument against the bank might be based on precedent …

If the opinion of the Supreme court covered the whole ground of this act, it ought not to control the co-ordinate authorities of this Government. The Congress, the executive and the court, must each for itself be guided by its own opinion of the Constitution. Each public officer, who takes an oath to support the Constitution, swears that he will support it as he understands it, and not as it is understood by others.

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