Studies in American Political Development

Research Article

Westward Expansion, Preappointment Politics, and the Making of the Southern Slaveholding Supreme Court

Justin Crowea1 c1

a1 Williams College


In this article, I trace the historical lineage and dynamic processes leading to the creation of the Southern slaveholding Supreme Court of antebellum America. Supported by case studies of several Jeffersonian and Jacksonian era legislative battles over judicial reform, I argue that the complex, multistage creation of the Southern slaveholding Court—the Court that decided cases such as Prigg v. Pennsylvania, Dred Scott v. Sandford, and Ableman v. Booth—was the inadvertent result of certain institutional strictures concerning the size of the Court and the geographic organization of the federal circuit system. In so doing, I illustrate how the creation of a fundamentally Jacksonian but also disproportionately Southern and undeniably slaveholding Court was not simply about who was appointed but about the structures that determined who might be appointed, who could be appointed, and who should be appointed. It was these considerations, in turn, that shaped not only the makeup and composition of the Court during this tumultuous period of American political development but also the very character of the momentous decisions it was likely to make.




I thank Sean Beienburg (Pomona ’08), Natalie Johnson (Williams ’13), and Scott Levy (Pomona ’10) for excellent research assistance and Dan Carpenter, Mark Graber, Scott James, George Lovell, Nicole Mellow, Christen Romanick, Keith Whittington, Emily Zackin, seminar participants at the Princeton Public Law Colloquium, and an anonymous reviewer for helpful suggestions, conversations, and feedback.