An “Unintended Consequence”: Dred Scott Reinterpreted

Austin Allen’s monograph marks the 150th anniversary of the decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford with a revisionist interpretation of that oft-examined case. Many scholars have portrayed the case as a proslavery decision that fanned sectional fires. After all, the Court held that blacks were not U.S. citizens and that Congress was impotent to bar slavery in U.S. territories. Allen, by contrast, understands the case primarily as a judicial attempt to rationalize federal commerce and slavery jurisprudences. Part I argues that this ambitious reinterpretation enriches, but does not topple, existing Dred Scott historiography. In the case of the Court’s citizenship ruling, Allen’s understanding of Dred Scott depends on a legal model of U.S. citizenship. While Part II commends the historicity of this approach, it criticizes Allen for overstating the independence of law from extrajudicial pressures and thereby understating the significance of the Dred Scott citizenship holding.