“Dred Scott was not a citizen of Missouri within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States, and not entitled as such to sue in its courts.”
Delivered in a heated atmosphere of sectional tensions over slavery, the US Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford delighted proslavery forces, horrified antislavery activists, and unquestionably pushed the nation closer to the looming crisis of the Civil War. Written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the ruling not only denied liberty to the plaintiff, an African American man who claimed that his temporary residence in a free state had earned him his freedom, but also declared that the US Constitution failed to grant the right of citizenship to any black American. The decision fueled the rise of the antislavery Republican Party and provided a rallying point for those opposed to the institution throughout the United States. As a result, sectional divides grew even larger, and within only a few years, the peace that some politicians had hoped the decision would assure had come to a complete end.
By the time the US Supreme Court issued its decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford—also written as Dred Scott v. Sandford due to a typographical error in the original court ruling—the United States was inflamed by sectional tensions over slavery. Although the Compromise of 1850 had sought to ease rising sectional issues over the westward spread of slavery and the continued existence of the institution itself by throwing out the Wilmot Proviso, supporting the doctrine of popular sovereignty, and making a concession to proslavery interests in the form of a harsh Fugitive Slave Act, the hoped-for era of peace had failed to materialize.
Instead, sectional tensions greatly worsened. The debate over the expansion of slavery into the territories, fueled by the breaking of the Missouri Compromise line in favor of popular sovereignty under the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, created the violent era known as Bleeding Kansas, which lasted until 1861. The application of the Fugitive Slave Act enraged Northerners, who were forced to become active participants in Southern slavery through the law’s requirement that they actively assist in the capture and return of suspected fugitives to their owners, without a fair or equitable judicial system to hear claims. The publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s enormously popular antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 persuaded a great number of Northerners that the institution should be abolished. Political rifts over slavery led to the fall of the long-standing Whig Party and the rise of the new Republican Party, which opposed the expansion of slavery into new territories or states. In the spring of 1856, congressional debate over slavery exploded into violence when Southern congressman Preston Brooks physically attacked Northern senator Charles Sumner over the content of a speech that the abolitionist Sumner had delivered.
In November of 1856, voters elected James Buchanan to the presidency. A Democrat who had spent much of the era of rising tensions serving in government posts abroad, Buchanan had little grasp of the volatility of the national situation. Believing that the measures of the past would serve to resolve the sectional tensions of the present, he appointed Northern and Southern officials to his administration and assumed that the debate over slavery could be solved by appeals to Americans’ belief in their Constitution. The issuance of the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court just two days into his term showed how wrong Buchanan was. In his inaugural address, the new president—who presumably had an inkling of what the court’s ruling would be—had argued that the impending Supreme Court decision would settle the question of slavery once and for all. Instead, it fed sectional antagonism and moved the nation inexorably closer to civil war.
Although each the justices of the US Supreme Court issued individual opinions on the ruling, the opinion of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney is generally considered the most historically significant. A native of Maryland, Taney was a member of one of the state’s leading planter families. He studied law in his youth and served briefly in the Maryland state legislature in his early twenties, remaining interested in politics even after losing office in 1800. Despite conflicts with the Federalist Party over its lack of support for the War of 1812, he nevertheless became a leading voice in the state Federalist Party and returned to the Maryland legislature as a state senator in 1816. Over the next several years, Taney became attached to the Democratic Party under Andrew Jackson, and in 1831, he became attorney general in the Jackson administration. In this role, Taney helped lead the legal fight against the Second Bank of the United States. In 1835, Jackson nominated Taney to the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Chief Justice John Marshall. Considerable opposition was mounted in Congress to his appointment, but Taney eventually won confirmation. He assumed his new office in 1836 and held it until his death in 1864.
Taney’s court opinions and the events of his life indicate a man deeply uncomfortable with the existence of the slave trade and institution of slavery, yet also firmly convinced of the moral, intellectual, and political inferiority of African Americans. In 1819, he spoke out against slavery as an “evil” and “a blot on our national character” when he defended a preacher charged with inciting a slave insurrection. By the 1820s, he had freed all of his own slaves. Yet his legal record shows his acceptance of slavery as a fact of life. While serving in the Supreme Court, he tended to support states’ rights in matters involving slavery while upholding the doctrine of federalism as established under the Marshall court. Like Marshall, for example, Taney tended to believe that the federal Bill of Rights did not apply to the states. When dealing with slavery, he hoped that it would be ended as a moral wrong, but he preferred and trusted that this could be done via gradual emancipation by the states in which slavery existed rather than through direct and, he thought, unconstitutional federal action against slave owners’ property rights. Nevertheless, he also held clearly racist opinions about the capabilities of blacks—opinions made evident in his most famous decision, the Dred Scott case.
With each of the nine justices submitting different opinions on the matter, despite forming an overall 7–2 majority against the plaintiff, the US Supreme Court case of Dred Scott v. Sandford was one of the most contentious rulings in the court’s history. It has also come to be widely regarded as one of the worst. In an opinion that went far beyond the scope necessary to address his conclusion in the case, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney offered a strong argument for institutionalized racism that stated that African Americans could not, under the US Constitution, be citizens; that the Congress had no right to restrict slavery in the territories, thus revoking the Missouri Compromise of 1820; that slavery was entirely legal under the Constitution; and, finally, that Scott lacked the right to sue in the federal courts, as he was not a US citizen, thus affirming his status as a slave.
Although the court did not rule on the case until March 1857, the matter had been wending its way through the judicial process for many years, and the events that inspired the legal claim dated back even further. The facts of the case, however, were undisputed. Born in about 1795, Dred Scott was originally owned by the Blow family of Virginia. With this household, he moved to Saint Louis in the slave state of Missouri in 1827. Six years later, the Blow family sold Scott to an army surgeon, Dr. John Emerson. Soon after, Emerson’s work took him and Scott to Rock Island in the free state of Illinois and, later, to the free territory of Wisconsin. In total, Scott lived as a part of Emerson’s household in free lands for some five years, during which time Scott married Harriet Robinson, and Emerson married a woman named Irene Sanford (whose family name would later be misspelled in court as “Sandford”). The expanded household returned to Missouri, where Emerson died in 1843. Scott then sought to buy his freedom from Emerson’s widow, but she refused his offer. Scott and his wife decided to seek their freedom through the courts, which had previously emancipated enslaved claimants on similar grounds. Dred and Harriet Scott filed separate court cases in Missouri in 1846, arguing that their long-term residency in free Illinois and Wisconsin meant they were no longer bound to slavery. Harriet Scott’s individual claim was soon dropped and made contingent on the ruling in her husband’s case, Dred Scott v. Irene Emerson, which proceeded slowly through the state courts.
In 1850, the Saint Louis Circuit Court ruled in Scott’s favor, supporting the plaintiff’s argument that the voluntary decision to bring them to free soil had freed them over the defendant’s assertion that Emerson’s status as a military doctor made the household subject to military rather than civil law. Irene Emerson filed an appeal, and in time the case reached the Missouri Supreme Court; by this time, however, she had remarried, moved out of Missouri, and passed ownership of the Scotts to her brother, John Sanford. The political climate surrounding slavery was also quite different in 1852, when that court ruled on the matter, from what it had been in 1846 or even early 1850, when Scott had won the day in Saint Louis. The passage of the Compromise of 1850 had stirred sectional tensions, and the resistance of Northern states to measures such as the Fugitive Slave Act and the expansion of slavery westward had angered Southerners. As a result, Missouri’s highest court overturned the circuit court’s decision, arguing that the state’s willingness to honor similar claims in the past had been based on a mutual reciprocity of respect for laws among the states. Because Northern states opposed Southern states’ property laws, the court asserted, Missouri was no longer willing to extend the in-kind recognition of the laws of Illinois and Wisconsin that would have established Scott’s freedom. Under this ruling, Dred Scott was a Missourian, subject only to the laws of Missouri, and therefore still a slave.
The situation also seemed increasingly pessimistic for the Scotts on a personal level. The Sanford family was affiliated with strong proslavery views. The Scotts and their two young daughters had been hired out by Sanford to work for another Saint Louis family, but the slave owner had previously sold a number of Missouri slaves whom he had inherited from his father. The possibility that the Scotts could be sold to another owner or even split up and sold to separate owners was very real. Thus the Missouri Supreme Court decision did not end Scott’s legal journey. Because John Sanford, the Scotts’ new owner, lived in New York City, Scott’s case was eligible for trial at the federal levels as a dispute between citizens of different states. In 1853, Scott’s lawyer filed a new suit, Dred Scott v. Sanford, with the federal circuit court. Sanford took a different defense from his sister’s in the earlier case, arguing that Scott was not a citizen of Missouri due to his race, and therefore his claim of freedom based on his shifting citizenship was not a valid one. However, the judge presiding over the case rejected this argument, asserting that free blacks, while lacking many rights of white citizens, did have the right to sue in federal courts; therefore, if Scott were in fact free, then he was bringing his claim legitimately. But the same judge did not support Scott’s assertion of freedom based on his time in Illinois and Wisconsin, instructing the jury to consider it only a temporary condition that gave way to enslavement once Scott returned to Missouri. Following these instructions, the jury ruled against Scott.
With this defeat, the case had but one venue for appeal: the US Supreme Court (where “Sanford” became “Sandford”). Supported by Northern abolitionists, Scott’s case came before that body in early 1856 for the first of the two arguments mentioned by Taney in his published opinion. After those oral arguments, the court deliberated but did not reach a conclusion. Instead, the justices agreed to hear another round of arguments in December of 1856. Over the course of the year between these rounds, three significant political events that shaped the sectional debate occurred. First, violence erupted in Kansas over that territory’s planned vote on whether to allow or bar slavery, with both proslavery and abolitionist forces wreaking havoc around the territory. Next, Congressman Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner with a cane on the floor of the Senate over perceived slights against his cousin, the Southern proslavery senator Andrew Butler. Tensions between opposing legislators had finally exploded into actual bloodshed, and Sumner required years to recover from the attack. Finally, Northern Democrat James Buchanan was elected to the presidency. Taney issued his opinion two days after Buchanan—who declared that the court ruling would end the question of slavery altogether—assumed office.
Taney began his opinion by setting forth the two essential questions that the court had been asked to consider. First, he sought to address the issue of whether the federal court that had rejected Scott’s appeal had jurisdiction to hear the case at all—essentially a matter of whether Scott, as a citizen of Missouri, had the right to sue Sanford, a citizen of New York. The answer to the next question rested on the answer to the first. If yes, then the court had to determine whether the lower court’s decision was correct under the US Constitution. If no, then the matter was settled. Taney then briefly recapped the question of whether Scott, as the black descendant of African slaves, was legitimately a citizen of Missouri entitled to sue in the federal courts.
To answer these questions, Taney first addressed the issue of whether the US Constitution enabled states to grant free blacks national citizenship that must be accepted by all of the other states, which would include the right to sue in federal courts. He drew upon both the language of the Constitution and that of the preceding Declaration of Independence to answer the question with a firm denial. The combined US political history, he argued, “show[ed] that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people” included in the broad assertions of equality in the nation’s founding documents. The framers, he believed, had never intended for any black person to be considered a part of “the people,” or the body politic of the United States.
Taney supported this assertion by pointing to the historical opinion of people of African descent as “beings of an inferior order . . . unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations.” Furthermore, he stated that the framers’ opinions of black Americans placed them “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” as evidenced by the practice of enslavement by Europeans and their American counterparts. The mere toleration of the existence of slavery was enough to show that the men who wrote the US Constitution had no interest in extending national membership to their black coresidents. To further bolster his claims of original intent, Taney called on other national and state-level documents of the early American era, including the Articles of Confederation, claiming that these equally showed an original intent for the practice of slavery. He concluded that “if anything in relation to the construction of the Constitution can be regarded as settled, it is that which we now give to the word ‘citizen’ and the word ‘people.’”
That a minority of early Europeans in the Americas and later colonial leaders actually did question the morality of slavery went ignored. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, stated his moral opposition to slavery, despite owning numerous slaves and being avowedly unconvinced that whites and blacks had equal human capabilities; founder John Adams opposed slavery; and Benjamin Franklin even called for its abolition. Under the early American government set up by the Articles of Confederation, Congress passed a Northwest Ordinance to organize its growing territory and exclude slavery from those new boundaries. The language of the Constitution, itself a compromise measure meant to draw together the dissimilar former colonies, failed to reflect this division of opinion, however, and Taney argued that nothing suggested “any change in public opinion or feeling” in either Europe or the United States. Apparently, he believed that the growth of the US abolitionist movement and the actual end of slavery in nations such as Great Britain and Spain did not reflect a shift toward the acceptance of black personhood. Therefore, he argued, Scott had no right to sue in the courts because, as a black man, he could not possibly hold citizenship.
Taney could have ended his opinion there, determining that the court could not rule because Scott was not a citizen. However, he continued to discuss the issues raised by the case to determine, in effect, whether Scott would have been free if he had indeed had the right to sue for his liberty. After restating the facts of the case, Taney next turned to the question of whether Congress had the constitutional right to bar slavery in the territories—a central tenet of the Missouri Compromise, which had outlawed slavery in the territories north of a set compromise line. This line had not been violated until the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, and rumblings about its constitutionality had emerged from proslavery voices in the federal government in the years preceding the Dred Scott decision. In his opinion, Taney set forth several arguments of original intent to support his decision. He recalled the conclusion that the framers of the US Constitution had meant slavery to be legal in the United States due to the inclusion of a clause barring discussion of the transatlantic slave trade for twenty years after the document’s creation and an article asserting the right of slave owners to reclaim fugitive slaves across state lines. “This is done in plain words—too plains to be misunderstood,” Taney stated. He continued that the Constitution, which protected slavery through its guarantee of property rights, did not make a special exemption in this case that would allow Congress to legislate that protection away.
Thus, Taney concluded that the congressional ban on the institution of slavery in the territories north of the Missouri Compromise line was unconstitutional. Property rights, he suggested, could not be dissolved in this manner, in much the same way that the rights to the freedoms of religion, speech, press, and assembly could not be taken away by Congress. Revocation of a citizen’s property rights without due process of law could not take place simply because that citizen traveled from one state to another, Taney argued, and the Constitution strongly sought to ensure that such revocation did not take place. If Congress lacked the right to put these types of federal restrictions on property, so, logically, did territorial governments under its jurisdiction. Taney rejected the argument that enslaved humans were a different form of property from any other type of personal holding.
As a result of these conclusions, according to Taney, “neither Dred Scott himself nor any of his family were made free by being carried into this territory”—that is, Wisconsin—because the legislation outlawing slavery there was not valid. To address the question of whether Scott’s residence in the free state of Illinois would have granted him freedom if the court had held that he had the right to sue, Taney asserted in a section not reproduced here that the answer was again no. Citing the 1850 US Supreme Court decision in Strader et al. v. Graham, Taney argued that enslaved persons taken willingly from a slave state to a free state remained subject to the laws of their home slave state. Because Scott was taken as a slave to the free state of Illinois, he remained a slave there, according to the laws of Missouri.
Taney thus rejected every possible argument for Scott’s freedom in favor of a constitutional viewpoint that went far beyond the scope of what even the most ardent proslavery proponent might have expected. Slavery was not only legal but protected under the US Constitution, so firmly that Congress had no power to legislate against it in federal territories. African Americans, whether enslaved or free, lacked even the most basic rights asserted in the Constitution. In short, black Americans were not even second-class citizens; they were less than citizens, because the framers had denied them even the possibility of becoming citizens. Racism, according to Taney, was the natural and intended state of affairs in the United States.
It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of the Dred Scott decision. Although the decision was not the immediate cause of the Civil War, it certainly served to increase sectional tensions and radicalize opposition to slavery in the North. Buchanan, and possibly the Supreme Court, may have believed that issuing a ruling that unquestionably affirmed the constitutionality of slavery would quell the calls for emancipation by antislavery activists by appealing to their sense of duty to the nation’s founding document. These leaders may have thought that if they removed slavery from the federal political sphere, the issue would recede back into a question handled at the state level. The actual result was quite the opposite, however, because of the sweeping constitutional statements that Taney made in his opinion. If he had merely stated that Scott was not a citizen of Missouri and thus his claim was invalid, Taney may have avoided sparking the outrage that followed the decision. Instead, he inadvertently encouraged the rise to power of the Republican Party and added to the chain of events culminating in the outbreak of the Civil War. In the long run, the Dred Scott decision has remained among the most studied in US history. Its arguments exemplify the intense racism built into the early national system and underscore the complete lack of regard proslavery advocates had for African Americans.
The court’s decision to essentially strip African Americans of citizenship was particularly pivotal. Certainly institutionalized racism had been present in the United States since its inception. The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution hailed the virtues of liberty and equality while making national allowances for the practice of slavery and even banning discussion of the transatlantic slave trade during the nation’s early years. Slave codes that barred racial intermarriage, made it illegal to provide slaves with even a basic education, and greatly restricted blacks’ civil liberties had been on the books even in colonial times. Yet none of these measures had previously gone so far as to deny African Americans citizenship altogether and in perpetuity. In the Dred Scott decision, the US Supreme Court—the highest legal voice in the land—formally declared that black Americans were not Americans at all and, as such, had no expectation of even basic legal protections under the Constitution. Although some of the court’s justices strongly dissented from this view in their own opinions, it was Taney’s argument that was seized on by pro- and antislavery voices alike. Not until the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in 1868 and 1870, respectively, were black Americans formally assured birthright citizenship and granted the political rights associated with that status.
On a smaller scale, but no less vital to the participants in the case, Scott and his family remained enslaved—but not for long. The Blow family, who had originally owned Scott and for whom he had worked on loan while owned by Sanford, purchased the family and freed them in May 1857. Scott had little time to enjoy his liberty, however, as he died of tuberculosis in September of the following year.
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