It will be in order to give a somewhat detailed account of three Dickinsonians, because of their prominence in the affairs of the state and of the nation. One of Dickinson's most distinguished sons was John B. Gibson, who, moreover, belonged to a somewhat notable family. Judge Gibson's boyhood was passed in Spring township, near Carroll, in what is now Perry county, but which, at the time of his birth, was in Cumberland county. He entered Dickinson College in 1795, or perhaps a year later, when about sixteen years of age. But he probably did not complete the course; for in the Alumni Record his name appears among the non-graduates of the year 1798. During most of his official life he was a resident of Carlisle. For two terms he was a member of the legislature. Then for three years he was the presiding judge of the eleventh district. From 1816 to 1827 he was an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Then, from 1827 to 1851, he was chief justice. Thereafter, like John Q. Adams, he did not disdain to accept a lower position, and again became an associate justice, which position he held at the time of his death. He was a trustee of the college from 1816 to 1829. When he entered upon his last office he was over seventy years of age, but his mind had lost none of its pristine vigor. Judge Gibson was more than a lawyer. He is known to have been somewhat of a connoisseur in painting and was a skillful performer on the violin. He rendered the following decision, in an important case: "If anything is self-evident in the structure of our government it is that the legislature has no power to order a new trial either before or after judgment. The power of the legislature is not judicial. It is limited to the making of laws, not to the exposition or execution of them." The misfortunes of the Ohio University began when the legislature of 1843 encroached upon the prerogative of the judiciary.
It was the misfortune of Judge Taney (1795), the successor of John Marshall on the Supreme Bench, to render a decision that may almost be said to have rendered his name infamous. It was, however, not so much the decision itself as theobiter dicta with which he accompanied it, that was criticized. As the decision was rendered by a large majority of concurring judges against two dissenting, there is little doubt that it was in conformity with the constitution as generally understood at that time. And a serious civil war was required to reverse it. A dictum from which could be deduced the doctrine that a negro has no rights which a white man is bound to respect, was quite out of keeping with the spirit of the age. Judge Taney was essentially a humane man and no time-server. He once defended a Methodist preacher who was accused of inciting the slaves to revolt. During the trial of this man he said: "A hard necessity compels us to condone the evils of slavery for a time; yet while it continues it is a blot upon our national character." He emancipated his slaves and provided for their maintenance. This is not the same man who wrote the majority decision in the Dred Scott case. He forgot that while public opinion advances with the increase of knowledge and experience, constitutions stand still. The agitation against slavery that raged around him had embittered his mind against the agitators, who, as he feared, would destroy the integrity of the Union. A deadlock ensued, which it seemed only an internecine war could break. Then once more, as often since the time of Cicero, "Inter arma leges silent.'" The profound wisdom embodied in Pope's well known lines,
"Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
For President Buchanan there is room here for but the briefest sketch. He entered public life a few years after leaving college and spent most of the remainder in the service of his country. Like Taney, he was a man of the strictest probity, and like Taney he was a lawyer rather than a statesman. When his legal training came into conflict with a "higher law," it carried the day. A noble man was the victim of circumstances from which he could not escape and which he was unable to control.
The Dred Scott decision was not one of that large number to be found in the reports of the Supreme Court upon which the judges divided five to four, or even six to three. The judges who concurred with the chief justice were Wayne, Catron, Daniel, Campbell, Nelson and Grier. The dissenting judges were McLean and Curtis, the latter writing the case for the minority. Nor were they all from the South. Besides the two dissenting judges, who were from Ohio and Massachusetts, respectively, Nelson was from New York and Grier from Pennsylvania.
Few facts in the psychology of the crowd are more remarkable and more inconsistent than the hostility of the southern whites to everything that bore the slightest resemblance to recognizing the negro as an equal, and to every word, written or spoken or printed, that broached the question of his emancipation, or even of the amelioration of his condition, on the one hand, and on the other, the fact that the southerner recognized to the fullest extent that his economic well being, almost his very existence, depended on this same negro. There was a great gulf fixed between the two races, which, if the inferior dared attempt to cross, it was at his peril. A man whose livelihood depends on a single donkey, will almost certainly treat the brute as well as he can. The long story of this race prejudice and its bloody ending is perhaps the saddest episode in the history of our country.