The Dred Scott Decision Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The majority opinion in Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford, written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, caused an uproar in the North because it was seen as giving the Southern slave owners everything they wanted: African Americans could not be citizens and Congress could not prevent slavery in federal territories. The outrage most Northerners felt regarding this decision, greatly increased their support for the new anti-slavery Republican Party, leading to the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860. Thus this ruling was one of the major sectional political actions which created the conditions for the Civil War. The dissent by Justice Benjamin R. Curtis opposed virtually every aspect of the Court’s decision.

Summary Overview

The majority opinion in Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford, written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, caused an uproar in the North because it was seen as giving the Southern slave owners everything they wanted: African Americans could not be citizens and Congress could not prevent slavery in federal territories. The outrage most Northerners felt regarding this decision, greatly increased their support for the new anti-slavery Republican Party, leading to the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860. Thus this ruling was one of the major sectional political actions which created the conditions for the Civil War. The dissent by Justice Benjamin R. Curtis opposed virtually every aspect of the Court’s decision.

Defining Moment

Sectional differences on the issue of slavery had been a part of United States’ politics at least since the Constitutional Convention. Congress had passed several laws, generally restricting the slave trade and the expansion of slavery into new territory. The Northern states had passed laws doing away with slavery during the first few decades of the republic and the Northwest Territory had been designated as slave free. As a result, there was a patchwork of state/territorial laws regarding slavery which led to uncertainty on both sides. Tensions had been growing across the country, and recent attempts by Congress to solve the problem had been to no avail. This was the setting when the Supreme Court decided to accept the appeal of Dred Scott versus John F. A. Sanford. (Sanford’s last name was misspelled in court documents, so that the ruling was issued using the name Sandford.)

Within Congress, the majority of the members were from free states. However, the Democratic Party, which dominated in the South and was the most sympathetic to slavery, did have some Northern representatives giving it a majority in both houses. After the negative reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, any legislation which might be seen as pro-slavery had little chance of passing. Chief Justice Roger Taney desired to issue a ruling which would end the confusion, and he hoped would ease the growing tension regarding the issue of slavery. The Supreme Court was similar to Congress in that it had seven Democrats and two Whigs. Of the Democrats, a majority were from the South, including Taney.

The Dred Scott case had been in the courts since 1846. Initially winning his and his family’s freedom in a Missouri court, Scott saw this outcome overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court on a technicality. In a second hearing, Scott was again successful in being granted freedom, but again the result was overturned by the state supreme court. Scott then appealed to the federal courts, and when the federal judge told those hearing the case to use the Missouri Supreme Court ruling as a guide in deciding the case, Scott lost. He then appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Court’s ruling had just the opposite effect as what Taney had desired.

Author Biography

Roger Brooke Taney was born March 17, 1777 and died in office on October 12, 1864. He grew up in Maryland on a tobacco plantation on which his family owned slaves. In 1806, he married Anne Phebe Charlton Key, and they had seven children. Having been educated at home, Taney went to Dickinson College and then studied law. He was admitted to the bar in 1799.

Originally a Federalist, he switched to the Democratic Party aligning himself with Andrew Jackson. After serving in the Maryland state legislature, Taney was elected to the statewide office of Attorney General in 1827. He moved into the Jackson administration in 1831, as acting Secretary of War, Attorney General, and finally, temporarily, as Secretary of the Treasury. As Attorney General, Taney accepted a South Carolina law prohibiting free blacks from entering the state and also expressed a belief that they could not be citizens of the United States. Initially rejected by the Senate as a Supreme Court nominee, he was confirmed as Chief Justice a year later after Democrats won control of the Senate. Although he had freed his slaves and spoke against slavery while a lawyer, his Supreme Court opinions were supportive of slavery. Benjamin Robert Curtis, November 4, 1809 to September 15, 1874, was born in Massachusetts, the son of a ship’s captain. He attended schools including Harvard College and Harvard Law School. In the Massachusetts legislature, Curtis wrote a judicial reform bill, which was passed in 1851, and then copied by many other states. He was married three times and fathered twelve children.

There were two Whigs appointed to the Supreme Court–John McLean and Benjamin Robert Curtis. Curtis was the first law-school graduate appointed and was confirmed in December 1851. His opinion in an interstate commerce case has guided national policy ever since he wrote it in 1852. Although he thought Taney was generally a good justice, Curtis had major problems with him regarding rulings on slavery. After the Dred Scott decision, Curtis did not believe he could work with others on the Court, so he resigned in September, 1857. He returned to a lucrative private practice, which included serving as President Andrew Johnson’s attorney during the impeachment process. Although considered for other judicial and political offices, he never returned to public service.

Document Analysis

When Dred Scott brought his appeal for freedom to the Supreme Court, it was an opportunity for the Supreme Court to clarify how slavery fit into the complex federal system of government in the United States. The issue of slavery itself was mixed with the issues of states’ rights, property rights and what it meant to be a territory of the United States. Chief Justice Taney wrote a strong opinion against Dred Scott and limiting the federal government’s ability to restrict slavery, obtain territory, and to change anything from the time of the adoption of the Constitution. From his legal outlook, he reasoned that people of African descent could not become U.S. citizens and that Congress had very limited power in the territories acquired as a result of various treaties. Curtis, as one of two dissenters, wrote a strongly worded reaction to Taney, which rejected the line of reasoning and the conclusions which had been reached. While the logic needed by both men to reach their conclusions could might, in some instances, seem to be contorted, they both believed deeply that it was necessary to demonstrate a formidable foundation for the opinion which was being given. As such, the range of citations went well beyond legal precedents from American courts to the common law tradition inherited from the British.

The basic case was that, under a previous owner, Scott had been taken to Illinois and then to the Wisconsin Territory, both of which had laws against slavery. While in Wisconsin Territory, Scott had been allowed to marry, which in essence was a contractual agreement. Although Scott and his family had been taken back to Missouri, he filed suit for freedom based on having lived for several years in Wisconsin Territory and having made a legal contract during that period. In the majority opinion supported by seven of the justices, Chief Justice Taney initially asked the question “Has the Circuit Court of the United States jurisdiction to hear and determine the case between the parties?” This is a basic question asked of many appeals which are directed to the Supreme Court, a question of jurisdiction. However, in answering this basic question, Taney went far beyond a simple answer. In making his determination, he focused on who was making the appeal. This was, in part, because the case had been taken to federal court because Dred Scott was in Missouri and Sanford had moved to New York, giving Scott the use of the clause in Article III of the Constitution that citizens of different states can file suit in federal court rather than in one of the states. Also, Taney seemed to focus on who was making the appeal because of previous legal opinions he had rendered regarding whether people of African descent could be United States citizens.

Sanford’s lawyer had argued that Scott was not a citizen of Missouri, and thus had no standing to file the suit, because his African ancestors “were brought into this country and sold as slaves.” While Scott accepted this, his attorney stated that it had no relevance to the case. In essence, this would be determined by the outcome of the case. If Scott was a slave, then he was not a citizen of Missouri. If Scott was not a slave, then he was a citizen of Missouri, since that was where he was residing. For Taney’s opinion to have any strength, he had to go beyond this type of semi-circular argument. It was from this that he focused on the citizenship of people of African descent. Since, according to Taney, all people from Africa who entered the United States did so as slaves, his ruling in this case would apply to all of them and their descendants. Taney claimed that since there were no free blacks when the Constitution was adopted, none of the provisions of the Constitution apply to them, except in the few instances where there were veiled references to slaves. His opinion included other historical facts of questionable accuracy. Taney asserted that during the founding of the republic, “the unhappy black race… were never thought of or spoken of except as property.” Similarly, the situation described by the famous phrases in the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were seen by Taney as being “too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included.” Thus, as a class, people of African descent living in the United States were not citizens. They could not become citizens, because the Constitution reserved the right to make laws regarding the naturalization of citizens to Congress, but for a person to be naturalized, that person must have been a citizen of another country. States granting freedom to slaves could not make them citizens, because granting citizenship to non-natural born individuals is a federal power. Slaves could be granted freedom, but this did not give them citizenship, according to Taney. As such, Scott was not a citizen and the federal courts did not have jurisdiction to hear his suit.

Going beyond this issue, Taney sought to bring consistency to federal laws regulating slavery in various territories. Since Scott was basing his appeal for freedom upon the several years he spent at Fort Snelling in Wisconsin Territory (in what is now Minnesota), Taney ruled upon the law which made this territory a non-slave area, the Missouri Compromise. He ruled that Congress did not have the authority to restrict slavery in any federal territory, with the exception of the Northwest Territory. Because Fort Snelling was/is on the west bank of the Mississippi River, it was part of the Louisiana Purchase, not the Northwest Territory. As Taney ruled, the Northwest Territory was an exception because it had been created during the Articles of Confederation with a no slavery clause in its organizational structure. The Northwest Territory being from the pre-Constitutional period, it was legal for the government to enforce the no slavery provisions of the law. However, after the creation of the Constitution of the United States, territory could only be acquired which would become new states. The Northwest Territory Ordinance only applied to territory already in the possession of the United States. Thus, territory acquired after 1789, was land in which future states would develop and the national government was only a caretaker. Taney wrote that Congress did have some power to make rules and regulations for the territories, but as if the territory were a colony. Laws were for “the interests of the whole people of the Union.” Since the Constitution and federal law allowed people to take personal property with them when they entered a territory, slaves, as personal property, should be allowed without exception in land acquired after the ratification of the Constitution. Following this logic, Taney ruled the Missouri Compromise, and any other similar law, unconstitutional. Again, this took away any basis which Scott might have had to seek his and his family’s freedom.

Justice Curtis, writing a dissenting opinion, not only disagreed with the ruling made by Taney, but with many of his assumptions as well. The result was a legal opinion which attacked virtually everything Taney had written. On the major ruling issued by Taney that individuals of African descent could not be citizens of the United States, Curtis was in total disagreement. As to the argument made by Sanford’s lawyer and agreed to by Taney, Curtis rejected the idea that because Scott’s ancestors were brought to the United States as slaves, this meant that Scott was a slave. Curtis wrote about Scott, “I cannot, therefore, treat this plea as containing an averment that the plaintiff himself was a slave.” To Curtis, even if Scott had been born a slave, this did not mean that he necessarily was still a slave. While Curtis did not attempt to refute Taney’s assertion that only people of those races which were represented among American citizens when the Constitution was adopted could be citizens of the United States, he refuted what Taney claimed had been the case. Curtis listed five states, and quoted from their legal documents, in which he knew for certain there had been free men of African descent with the rights of full citizenship at the time of the Constitution was adopted. Since they were citizens under the Constitution, Curtis asserted that it was possible for other free people of African descent to also be citizens. The Constitution, according to Curtis, was not “exclusively for the white race.” The fact that there was not equality of rights (such as voting) between the sexes or among people of various races, to Curtis, did not negate the fact that all could be citizens of the United States. Curtis further added, “color is not a necessary qualification for citizenship under the Constitution of the United States.” Because of these, and other arguments, put forward by Curtis, he stated that Taney’s majority opinion was totally wrong. Thus, Curtis accepted as fact that Scott had standing to file the case and the Circuit Court had jurisdiction.

As regarded whether or not a slave being taken to reside in a free state or territory made that slave free, Curtis referred to British, French, and American precedents. Basically, there had been several cases in which a slave became free because of residency in a free state or territory. As to applicable federal laws, Curtis wrote that it was clear Congress wanted to keep slavery out of the northern section of the Louisiana Purchase, which meant that “the state of involuntary servitude of a slave, coming into the Territory with his master, should cease to exist.” Obviously, Taney’s assertion that the law, the Missouri Compromise, was unconstitutional would undercut Curtis’s assertion if Taney were correct. However, Curtis argued that the Northwest Territory Ordinance was not an exception but a precedent for the administration of future territories. In addition, Curtis stated that the national government acted in place of a state government in territories prior to those territories being admitted as states. Thus, for Curtis, state powers were assumed by the national government until statehood was granted. The Missouri Compromise, and any similar laws, were constitutional in Curtis’s mind.

The final point for Curtis was the marriage of Dred Scott to Harriet Robinson in the Wisconsin Territory. The fact that their owner at that time, John Emerson, consented to the marriage and that it was performed in Wisconsin made a difference to Curtis. He asserted that marriage is a legal contract, with certain rights and obligations, which conflicted with the status of a slave. Curtis stated that Emerson did not have the right to do anything to overturn the contract of marriage. This meant, to Curtis, that in giving his consent to the marriage, and allowing it to happen, it was “an effectual act of emancipation.” The free status applied to the couple and to their children. While a dissenting opinion has not rule of law, Curtis recommended the case be sent back to the lower court for a new trial.

Essential Themes

Although the enslavement of Africans in North America had existed for more than two hundred and thirty years, social acceptance of the institution had been declining. The universality of slavery had disappeared since several states had completed a gradual process of outlawing slavery, while others had never allowed it within their borders. Congress had also passed laws allowing slavery in certain federal areas but not in others. The Dred Scott Case was an opportunity to unify the nation, and Chief Justice Taney sought to do this. The justices ruling on the Dred Scott Case had plenty of time to write their opinions. It was first heard in February, 1856, and then reheard during the next Court term in December, 1856. Eighteen fifty-six being a presidential election year, some leaders of the Democratic Party lobbied Taney to delay a ruling until after the election. Thus, the need for a rehearing after the election and the scheduling the announcement of the decision two days after the inauguration of President Buchanan. As president-elect, Buchanan knew what the ruling would be, in fact, even lobbying one of the Northern justices to join with the majority to make the pro-slavery ruling not look to be based on regional interests. However, when the scope of the ruling was announced, virtually everyone saw it as reflecting the views of the Southern Democratic political establishment.

Taney’s ruling that no one of African descent could be a citizen, in addition to declaring the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, quickly divided the nation. Even the Democratic Party could not remain unified, as the Northern and Southern wings of the part moved in different directions. It gave strength to the emerging Republican Party, helping them to make significant political gains. In the next round of House elections, the Democrats lost thirty seats, with the Republicans gaining twenty-two and the anti-slavery Opposition Party seventeen. During the 36th Congress (1859-61), the Senate changed from majority Democratic to majority Republican. Thus, the dramatic ruling in the Dred Scott Case quickly transformed the political landscape, leading to Lincoln’s election as president in the1860 elections and the Civil War. Other than often being cited as the worst Supreme Court ruling ever, the direct long-term effects of this ruling in the legal system were minimal, due to the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, in 1865, which declared all slavery illegal.

  • Graber, Mark A. Dred Scott and the Problem of Constitutional Evil. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.
  • Humanities Computing. American History: From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond. Groningen, the Netherlands: University of Groningen, 2012. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.
  • Missouri Digital Heritage. Missouri’s Dred Scott Case, 1846–1857. Jefferson City: Missouri State Archives, 2013. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.
Additional Reading
  • Africans in America. Dred Scott’s Fight for Freedom. Boston, WGBH for Public Broadcasting System, 1999. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.
  • Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Dred Scott Case, Its Significance in American Law and Politics. New York: Oxford UP, 1978.
  • Finkelman, Paul. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford, 1997. Print.
  • Maltz, Earl M. Slavery and the Supreme Court, 1825–1861. Lawrence, U Press of Kansas, 2009. Print.
  • Simon, James F. Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President’s War Powers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Print.
  • Swisher, Carl Brent. Roger B. Taney. New York: Macmillan, 1935. Print.
  • University of Missouri, St. Louis. Dred Scott-United States Supreme Court. St. Louis: U of Missouri St. Louis, 2004. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.
Categories: History