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Great Scott - and Bad Presidents
We write about Dred Scott, James Buchanan and throw in William Henry Harrison for good measure. There’s a lot to uncover in this latest lesson - that isn’t too bad.
Dred Scott vs. Sandford was decided today, 164 years ago. In the single worst ruling of the Supreme Court, seven white dudes declared that black people, regardless of being enslaved or free, had no rights under the US Constitution as citizens. In case you can’t do the math, 164 years ago was 1857. We happened to inaugurate a president that year, which leads us to our next presidential ranking.
But first, let’s review the Supreme Court’s saddest day at the office.
Dred Scott was a slave whose masters moved him from slave state Missouri to free territories of Wisconsin and Illinois, only to bring him back to Missouri, like he was a tractor or something. Scott tried to buy his freedom, but I guess his credit card was maxed out, and he was unable. With abolitionist lawyers' help, Scott was able to sue, saying since he lived within an imaginary area that declared slavery was illegal, he was then free. They based this idea of "once free, always free," which came about from an earlier lower court case called Winny vs. Whitesides, which said once you made it to free territory, you were, in fact, free. The Supreme Court decided 7-2 against Scott’s position. All nine justices felt the need to express their opinion. Chief Justice Taney took a unique interpretation that blacks were never intended to be citizens under the Constitution. Awesome, thanks…Roger.
James Buchanan was sworn into office two days before the decision. During his inauguration speech, the 15th president declared that the issue of slavery would soon be settled by the Supreme Court.
Strange. How did Buchanan predict this would happen?
Oh, it's because he spoke to Justice John Catron, a close personal friend, hoping the case would be completed before he took office. Or at least immediately after. Buchanan then successfully convinced Justice Grier to join the Southern justices in the decision to make it appear less partisan. Bad. Very bad.
Let’s just jump into the next two rankings. Beginning with Jimmy.
43: James Buchanan
2017 Ranking: 43
2019 Ranking: 43
Term – March 4, 1857 – March 4, 1861
Not much. The country was being torn apart for all of James's adult life. Political parties kept trying to patch the country together with Northerners who had Southern sympathies, like Buchanan, meaning it was okay to keep black people enslaved.
Where to begin? A financial panic hit the country months into his administration, and Buchanan waved on what to do. The
As I mentioned when I ranked Trump, Buchanan never actively sought the presidency. He wasn’t that driven. He liked being important but never wanted to get his hands dirty.
Why did I rank him here?
There's nothing worse than leaders who fail to rise to the challenge facing them. With the Dred Scott decision, Buchanan hoped some other institution would resolve the contentious issue of slavery, and he could hold state dinners never having to deal with it. Only Trump is worse.
42: William Henry Harrison
2017 Ranking: 35
2019 Ranking: 42
Term – March 4, 1841 – April 4, 1841
Most of Harrison’s good came before he ascended into office. His military record, the treaties he signed with Indian tribes. His death did allow the peaceful transfer of power to John Tyler. Kinda morbid but important.
We will never know the possible impact of Harrison because it only lasted 30 days. Just think of how Buchanan and Trump feel about being below this guy.
Not many historians spent time diving into Harrison’s president time. He did get into it with Henry Clay, a fellow Whig party leader who was pretty much unbearable.
Why did I rank him here?
Harrison has always been tough to rank. It wasn't his fault he died of a cold. But you can't make it incomplete, either, because you just can't. You have to stick him somewhere. I started him out at 35, which years later looks way too high. He could move back up again when I dive more into the guys between 35 and 41. We may run into his grandson, Benjamin Harrison, soon.