• Last updated on November 10, 2022

In one of the most reviled decisions in its history, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress could not limit slavery in the territories, nullifying the Missouri Compromise, and also that African Americans could not be U.S. citizens.

Summary of Event

Few decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court have had the political repercussions of Dred Scott v. Sandford. The decision supplied the infant Republican Party with new issues to use against the Democrats, who were already divided by the disturbances in Kansas that historians have called Bleeding Kansas. The decision also was an embarrassment to the Republicans, for in denying the authority of Congress to legislate on slavery in the territories, the ruling destroyed the major platform of the Republican Party. The Supreme Court’s opinion also damaged, if not destroyed, the practicability of Stephen A. Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty, for if Congress had no authority to regulate slavery in the territories, then territorial legislatures had no authority either, as they were inferior bodies created by Congress. The Court had thus entered completely into the political issues tearing at the union, and the reputation of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney was shattered in the North. Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) Supreme Court, U.S.;on slavery[Slavery] Supreme Court, U.S.;on African American citizenship Citizenship, U.S.;and African Americans[African Americans] Scott, Dred Sanford, John F. A. Taney, Roger Brooke [p]Taney, Roger Brooke;Dred Scott case Missouri;Dred Scott v. Sandford Missouri Compromise (1820);and Dred Scott v. Sandford[Dred Scott v. Sandford] [kw]Dred Scott v. Sandford (Mar. 6, 1857) [kw]Sandford, Dred Scott v. (Mar. 6, 1857) Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) Supreme Court, U.S.;on slavery[Slavery] Supreme Court, U.S.;on African American citizenship Citizenship, U.S.;and African Americans[African Americans] Scott, Dred Sanford, John F. A. Taney, Roger Brooke [p]Taney, Roger Brooke;Dred Scott case Missouri;Dred Scott v. Sandford Missouri Compromise (1820);and Dred Scott v. Sandford[Dred Scott v. Sandford] [g]United States;Mar. 6, 1857: Dred Scott v. Sandford[3150] [c]Human rights;Mar. 6, 1857: Dred Scott v. Sandford[3150] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 6, 1857: Dred Scott v. Sandford[3150] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Mar. 6, 1857: Dred Scott v. Sandford[3150] Blair, Montgomery Curtis, Benjamin R. McLean, John

Two pertinent questions were raised by the Scott case. First, could an African American, whose ancestors were imported into the United States and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community created by the U.S. Constitution and thereby enjoy the rights and privileges of a U.S. citizen? Second, did the Constitution regard African Americans as a separate class of persons distinct from the class known as citizens?

Dred Scott, the plaintiff in Dred Scott v. Sandford, was a slave of African descent. In 1834, he had been taken by his owner, John Emerson, an army surgeon, to the free state of Illinois and then to Wisconsin Wisconsin;and slavery[Slavery] Territory, which was free by the provisions of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Emerson returned to Missouri with Scott in 1838. After Emerson’s death in 1846, Scott sued his widow in the Missouri courts for his freedom, on the grounds that his residence in a free state and in a free territory had made him free. Although he won in the lower court, Missouri’s supreme court reversed the decision in 1852 and declared that Scott was still a slave because of his voluntary return to Missouri.

While Scott’s litigation was progress, Emerson’s widow remarried. Under Missouri law, administration of her first husband’s estate passed to her brother, John F. A. Sanford. Because Sanford was a citizen of New York, Scott’s lawyer, Montgomery Blair Blair, Montgomery , acting on the grounds that the litigants in the case were residents of different states, sued for Scott’s freedom in the United States circuit court in Missouri. The verdict there also went against Scott.

As expected, the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was argued in February, 1856, and reargued in January, 1857. At first, the justices of the Supreme Court agreed to decide against Scott on the grounds that Scott was a slave under Missouri law, as it was interpreted by its supreme court, despite his residence on free soil. However, for a variety of reasons, the justices changed their minds and determined to deal with the controversial questions of African American citizenship and congressional power over slavery in the territories. One of the justices confidentially informed President-Elect James Buchanan Buchanan, James [p]Buchanan, James;and Dred Scott case[Dred Scott case] of the Court’s intention. Buchanan supported the Court’s plan and even persuaded one justice to concur in the majority opinion. The Supreme Court announced its decision on March 6, 1857, two days after Buchanan’s inauguration as president.

Contemporary magazine illustration of Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet.

(Library of Congress)

Although each of the nine justices issued a separate opinion, a majority of them held that African Americans who were descendants of slaves could not belong to the political community created by the Constitution and enjoy the right of federal citizenship. They also agreed that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, forbidding slavery in the part of the Louisiana Purchase territory north of 36°30′ north latitude, was unconstitutional.

According to the opinion of Chief Justice Taney, African Americans were “beings of an inferior order” who “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The significance of Taney’s comments lies in the fact that they established a perception of African Americans that transcended their status as slaves. In considering the issue of equality, Taney did not limit his assessment of African Americans to those who were slaves but also included African Americans who were free. His opinion raises questions about the extent to which his public pronouncement on the alleged inferiority of African Americans helped to establish conditions for the future of race relations in the United States.

Although individual states could grant citizenship to African Americans, state action did not give them U.S. citizenship under the federal Constitution. Therefore, concluded Taney, “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.” There is considerable evidence that African Americans were not considered citizens and guaranteed rights and privileges by the U.S. Constitution. One of these rights, the ability to sue, was critical to the opinion of the Court.

The Constitution, U.S.;and slave trade[Slave trade] Constitution granted each of the original thirteen states the authority to continue the importation of slaves until 1808. In so doing, the Constitution Constitution, U.S.;and slavery[Slavery] supported an enterprise that relegated African Americans to the status of chattel. In effect, extending the trading of slaves by the states for more than twenty years after the signing of the Constitution shows that African Americans were not included as a class granted citizenship. The Constitution also indicated that states were to make a commitment to each other to assist slave owners in retaining their property. Because slaves were defined as chattel, this applied directly to them as a class. Finally, the intent of the Constitution to exclude African Americans as citizens was revealed in the congruence between the stated ideas and the conduct that was prescribed. That is, the authors of the Constitution expected the language and the actual practices and conventions during that time period to be consistent.

On the second point, Taney declared that, since slaves were property, under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution—which prohibited Congress from taking property without due process of law—Congress had only the power and duty to protect the slaveholders’ rights. Therefore, the Missouri Compromise law was unconstitutional. This part of Taney’s opinion was unnecessary, an obiter dictum, for, having decided that no African American could become a citizen within the meaning of the Constitution, there was no need for the Supreme Court to consider the question of whether Congress could exclude slavery from the territories of the United States. The Court’s decision was consistent with earlier decisions regarding slavery. Historically, the Court’s opinions had protected slave owners’ rights to their property, even when the chattel was slaves.

The two antislavery justices on the Court, John McLean McLean, John and Benjamin Curtis Curtis, Benjamin R. , wrote dissenting opinions. They stated that before the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, free African Americans were citizens of several states and were, therefore, also citizens of the United States. Consequently, the United States circuit court had jurisdiction in the Scott case. Because the Constitution gave Congress full power to legislate for the federal territories, it could act as it pleased regarding slavery, as on all other subjects.

Significance

The nation reacted strongly to the Supreme Court’s decision. White slaveholders in the South were delighted, for a majority of the justices had supported the extreme southern position. Under the Court’s ruling, all federal territories were now legally opened to slavery, and Congress was obliged to protect the slaveholders’ possession of their chattel. The free-soil platform of the Republicans was unconstitutional. The Republicans denounced the decision in the most violent terms, as the product of an incompetent and partisan body. They declared that when they obtained control of the national government, they would change the membership of the Supreme Court and secure reversal of the decision. Northern Democrats, while not attacking the Supreme Court, were discouraged by the decision, for if Congress could not prohibit slavery in any territory, neither could a territorial legislature. Therefore, popular sovereignty also would cease to be a valid way of deciding whether a federal territory should be slave or free.

The Supreme Court’s decision in this case and many subsequent opinions of the Court would have an adverse impact upon African Americans seeking legal rights as citizens of the United States. Moreover, as the first decision since Marbury v. Madison (1803) to reverse an act of Congress as unconstitutional, it generated lower esteem for the Court among northerners, widening the growing rift between North and South.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abraham, Henry J. Freedom and the Court: Civil Rights and Liberties in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Focuses on civil rights and liberties for African Americans in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell, Derrick. Race, Racism and American Law. 2d ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. Presents a comprehensive analysis of U.S. law that asserts that racial inequality is integrated into the legislative and judicial system in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Excellent scholarly account of the Dred Scott case, with considerable attention given to the various issues facing the United States on the eve of the Civil War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finkelman, Paul. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford, 1997. Useful casebook on the Dred Scott decision that contains detailed and useful documentation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huebner, Timothy S. The Taney Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003. Study of Taney’s twenty-eight-year tenure on the Supreme Court, including historical background, biographical sketches of the justices, and analyses of the court’s major decisions and legacy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaufman, Kenneth C. Dred Scott’s Advocate: A Biography of Roswell M. Field. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996. Biography covering the personal and professional life of Field, a St. Louis-based attorney who pled Scott’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Thomas T., and Richard L. Wilson, eds. Encyclopedia of the U.S. Supreme Court. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2001. Comprehensive reference work on the Supreme Court that contains substantial discussions of Dred Scott v. Sandford, Roger B. Taney, and other related subjects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paul, Arnold, ed. Black Americans and the Supreme Court Since Emancipation: Betrayal or Protection? New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972. Explores various precedent-setting Supreme Court cases that reveal the Court’s failure to ensure equal rights for African Americans.

Marbury v. Madison

Missouri Compromise

Bleeding Kansas

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Civil Rights Act of 1866

Civil Rights Cases

Plessy v. Ferguson

United States v. Wong Kim Ark

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Dred Scott; Roger Brooke Taney. Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) Supreme Court, U.S.;on slavery[Slavery] Supreme Court, U.S.;on African American citizenship Citizenship, U.S.;and African Americans[African Americans] Scott, Dred Sanford, John F. A. Taney, Roger Brooke [p]Taney, Roger Brooke;Dred Scott case Missouri;Dred Scott v. Sandford Missouri Compromise (1820);and Dred Scott v. Sandford[Dred Scott v. Sandford]

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