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The Courts and Slavery in the United States: Property Rights and Credible Commitments

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Type: Working Paper
Author: Drobak, John N.
Date: 1992
Agency: School of Buisness and Center in Political Economy, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO
Series: Political Economy Working Paper, no. 171
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/5878
Sector: History
Social Organization
Region: North America
Subject(s): property rights
Abstract: "Recent literature has examined the role of Congress in creating a credible commitment to the institution of slavery in the antebellum United States. This paper explains the contributions of the courts to that commitment. The paper first shows the disparity in the rulings between the state courts in the North and South in cases concerning the freedom of nonresident slaves. Then the paper examines the attempts by the federal courts to strengthen the national commitment to slavery and mitigate the anti-slavery conduct of the North. The paper concludes by showing the futility of the decision in Dred Scott, an opinion that failed in its attempt to reinforce the federal government's commitment to slavery because the courts could not overcome the decades of increasing hostility to slavery. Not only did the Supreme Court in Dred Scott fail to placate the South, the Court exacerbated the tension between the North and South and helped move the country even closer to civil war. The episode described in this paper illustrates how sometimes a government institution can no longer make a formal commitment credible when the public has renounced that commitment."

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