Dred Scott v. Sandford 1857

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Dred Scott v. Sandford 1857

Plaintiff: Dred Scott

Defendant: John F.A. Sandford

Plaintiff's Claim: That Scott, a slave, became a free man when taken by his owner to a non-slave state as recognized by the Missouri Compromise.

Chief Lawyers for Plaintiff: Samuel M. Bay, Montgomery Blair, George T. Curtis, Alexander P. Field, Roswell M. Field, David N. Hall

Chief Lawyers for Defense: Hugh A Garland, H.S. Geyer, George W. Goode, Reverdy Johnson, Lyman D. Norris

Justices for the Court: John A. Campbell, John Catron, Peter V. Daniel, Robert C. Grier, Samuel Nelson, Chief Justice Robert B. Taney, James M. Wayne

Justices Dissenting: Benjamin Curtis, John McLean

Date of Decision: March 6, 1857

Decision: Ruled that Scott was still a slave and that slaves and their descendants were property and could never be U.S. citizens and can never become a citizen. The Court also found the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.

Significance: Instead of settling the slavery issue, the decision fueled the controversy further. The ruling most likely hastened the start of the Civil War.

A slave is a person who works for another person against his or her will as a result of force. Dred Scott was a Missouri slave who attempted to gain his freedom through the courts. His case reached the U.S. Supreme Court and on March 6, 1857 the Court handed down a decision. The ruling in Dred Scott v. Standford has been described as the Court's greatest mistake, a tragic error, a political calamity. Not only did the opinion cast a dark shadow over the Court's trustworthiness and prestige, but it most likely hastened the beginning of the Civil War (1861–1865).

Born in Virginia in the late 1790s, Scott was owned by Peter Blow. A plantation owner, Blow took Scott to Alabama in 1819 then, after growing tired of farming, moved his family and slaves including Scott to the booming frontier town of St. Louis, Missouri in 1830. Scott was sold in 1833 to an army surgeon, Dr. John Emerson of St. Louis.

Missouri Compromise

Scott's travels west mirrored U.S. westward expansion during the same time period. Americans had pushed west from the original thirteen states to beyond the Mississippi River. Slavery, which was permitted by the U.S. Constitution, became a serious political problem as westward expansion continued. Northern states who had chosen to be free states, not allowing slavery, wanted to keep the new western territories free. Southern states, slave states, wanted to bring slavery and the plantation lifestyle to the territories. Both sides feared that as new states were admitted to the Union, the other side would gain a controlling vote in the Senate.

In 1818 the Territory of Missouri applied for admission to the United States. Slavery was legal in the territory and most people expected Missouri to enter as a slave state. At this time there were eleven free states and eleven slave states. Therefore, twenty-two senators were from free states and twenty-two senators from slave states. Admitting Missouri would tip the balance. In 1820 an agreement called the Missouri Compromise was reached in Congress between its Northern and Southern members. Missouri was admitted as a slave state and Maine was admitted as a free state. The Compromise also banned slavery from north of Missouri's southern boundary, except in the state of Missouri.

The Compromise proved far from a final solution as slavery remained an explosive issue for the next four decades. Many questioned if Congress had the authority to prohibit slavery in any territory. The controversy would play a key role in the Dred Scott decision.

Scott's Travels North

Scott accompanied his new owner, Dr. Emerson, on his assignments. In 1834 Dr. Emerson took Scott out of Missouri to a military post in Illinois, a free state, where Scott served his owner until 1836. Emerson then took Scott with him to a new assignment at Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory (in modern-day Southeast Minnesota). At that time, the territory of Wisconsin was free according to the Missouri Compromise. Dr. Emerson kept Scott as a slave at Fort Snelling until 1838 when they returned home to Missouri.

Within a few years of their return, Emerson died, leaving Scott to his widow. Mrs. Emerson moved to New York in the mid-1840s and left Scott in the care of Henry Blow, a member of the family that had originally owned him. Blow, opposed to the extension of slavery to the western territories, financially supported Scott to test in court whether living in the free state of Illinois and in the Wisconsin Territory had made him a free man. Scott brought suit in a Missouri court for his freedom, arguing that since he had been a resident of a free state and in a free territory, his status had changed. The Missouri court held in January of 1850 that Scott was a free man based on certain Missouri state court precedents (previous rulings) which said that, even though Missouri was a slave state, residence in a free state or territory resulted in a slave's emancipation (freedom). However, the Missouri Supreme Court in 1852 reversed that decision by stating that blacks were destined to be slaves.

In 1854 Mrs. Emerson arranged a sale of Scott to her brother John F.A. Sanford (the Supreme Court records misspelled Sanford's name as Sandford) who lived in the state of New York. The sale to Sanford enabled Scott to again file suit, this time in a federal circuit court. Suits may be brought in federal court if the two opposing parties are citizens of different states. Sanford was a citizen of New York and Scott needed to show he was a citizen of Missouri. The circuit court ruled that Scott, as a black slave, was not a citizen of Missouri, therefore he could not bring suit in federal court. Scott immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

With the issue of slavery persisting and Congress unable to find a political solution, the Court felt mounting pressure to seek a final solution to the slavery question. Therefore, the Court agreed to hear the case. First argued before the Court in February of 1856, the justices decided to postpone their decision until after the November presidential election because of the political sensitivity. After a second round of oral arguments in December of 1856, a majority of seven decidedly pro-slavery justices favored a narrow ruling saying it was up to Missouri to determine if Scott was slave or free and the Court could not interfere with that decision. However, the two dissenting justices, John McLean and Benjamin R. Curtis, both fiercely antislavery, made it clear their dissents would be much more far reaching. They were preparing to consider whether or not a slave could ever become a citizen, whether living on free soil made a slave a free man, and whether Congress had the authority to ban slavery in the territories. In response, each of the seven majority justices decided to write their own opinions. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney's opinion was widely viewed as the official position of the majority.

Never a Citizen

First, Taney declared that never could Scott or any slave or his descendent be a citizen under the Constitution. Taney wrote that,

. . . they are not included and were not intended to be included under the word "citizens" in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to the citizens of the United States.

Taney arrived at this conclusion by examining the historical view of slaves and the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution. With stinging words he wrote that slaves "had for more than a century before [the Constitution was ratified] been regarded as being of an inferior order . . . with no rights which the white man was bound to respect . . . " Further, Taney said that blacks were not included in the words of the Declaration of Independence, "all men are created equal." Not only were slaves not citizens but, Taney continued, that slaves were actually regarded in the Constitution as property.

Taney, having presented ample reasons why Scott could not be considered a citizen, could have stopped at this point and dismissed the case. For if Scott was not a citizen, he could not bring suit in federal court, just as the lower federal circuit court had ruled. However, in order to let the nation know where the Court stood, the Chief Justice felt it necessary to address the issues of the free man on "free soil" argument and of slavery in the territories. Taney dismissed the idea that a slave became free just because he entered a free state. Whatever claim to freedom Scott might have had in Illinois was lost when he left that state and Missouri was not obligated to enforce an Illinois law.

Taney next decided that the ban on slavery in territories by the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, therefore Scott's living in the Wisconsin Territory did not make him a free man. Taney had reasoned that Scott was property and the Fifth Amendment said that no one could deprive a person of his property without "due process of law [fair legal proceedings]" and "just compensation [payment]." For Congress to deprive slave owners their property just because they came into a free territory would be denying slave owners due process of law in violation of the Fifth Amendment. Hence, the Court declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional and said that Congress was bound to protect slavery in the territories. This was only the second time the Supreme Court had used the power of judicial review which allows the Court to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional. The first was Marbury v. Madison (1803).

Stage Set for Civil War

Intended to settle the legal question of slavery, the decision actually fueled the controversy over slavery and seriously damaged respect for the Court. Animosity heightened between the Northern and Southern states. The Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings over the slavery issue, allowing Republican Abraham Lincoln (1861–1865), strongly antislavery, to be elected President in 1860. Historians widely believe the Scott decision hastened the onset of the Civil War just four years later.

The outcome of the Civil War and the amendments Congress passed immediately following its conclusion overturned the Scott decision. Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolishing slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1866 and ratified in 1868, declared all persons born or naturalized in the United States were citizens of the United States and the state in which they lived. It also prohibited the states from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law or denying any person equal protection of the laws. These guarantees, indirectly the legacy of the slave Dred Scott provided the basis for the emphasis on civil rights later in the twentieth century.


R oger Brooke Taney (1777–1864), the fifth chief justice of the United States serving from 1836 until his death in 1864, was born in Maryland in 1777. Taney's ancestors had settled in Maryland in the 1660s and his father was a prosperous tobacco plantation owner. Taney built a thriving legal practice in Maryland, and married Anne Phoebe Carlton Key, sister of the author of the "Star Spangled Banner," Francis Scott Key.

Taney was appointed to the Court by President Andrew Jackson (1929–1937), whom he staunchly supported, to fill the seat left by Chief Justice John Marshall's death. Taney often appeared to be a man of contradictions. Taney, the aristocrat, insisted on wearing ordinary trousers instead of formal knee britches under his judicial robes. Although a persuasive leader, Taney assigned important opinions to associate justices to write rather than issuing all opinions himself, a break from past tradition.

Taney adhered to the Jacksonian principle that power should be divided between the states and federal government and believed the Court must determine that split. Many feared he would dismantle Marshall's federalist vision of a strong central government. While he did transfer some power to the states, particularly in the area of commerce (trade), he did not completely break from the nationalism of the Marshall Court.

Although Taney served on the Court with great distinction, he is best remembered for his infamous decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) where he ruled that slaves were so inferior as to possess no rights, could never be citizens, were property, and that Congress was bound to protect slavery in the territories. Ironically, years earlier Taney had freed his own slaves at considerable financial sacrifice and stated that slavery was an "evil" and "a blot on our national character." Taney remained Chief Justice until his death a year before the end of the Civil War.

Suggestions for further reading

Fehrenbacher, Don E. Slavery, Law and Politics: The Dred Scott Case in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Finkelman, Paul. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents. Bedford Books, 1997.

Freedman, Suzanne. Roger Taney: The Dred Scott Legacy. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1995.

January, Brendan. The Dred Scott Decision (Cornerstones of Freedom). Children's Press, 1998.