Dred Scott v. Sandford

From New World Encyclopedia

Template:SCOTUSCase Dred Scott v. Sandford,[1] 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1856) also known as the "Dred Scott Case" or "Dred Scott Decision," was a lawsuit, pivotal in the history of the United States, decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1857 that ruled that people of African descent, whether or not they were slaves, could never be citizens of the United States, and that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories. The decision for the court was written by Chief Justice Roger Taney.

The decision sided with border ruffians in the Bleeding Kansas dispute who were afraid a free Kansas would be a haven for runaway slaves from Missouri. It enraged abolitionists. The polarization of the slavery debate is considered one of many factors leading to the American Civil War.

The parts of this decision dealing with the citizenship and rights of African-Americans were explicitly overturned by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which finally meant that the words of the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" applied to all the citizens on the United States.


Dred Scott was an enslaved man, purchased around 1833, by Dr. John Emerson, a surgeon in the U.S. Army, from Peter Blow, who had owned Scott perhaps since his birth in 1795 but at least since 1818. Emerson served for over three years at Fort Armstrong, Illinois. Illinois was a free state, and Scott was eligible to be freed under its constitution. In 1836, Emerson was relocated to Wisconsin Territory, now present day Minnesota, a free territory under the Missouri Compromise and the Wisconsin Enabling Act. During this time, Scott met and married the slave Harriet Robinson; marriage, a legally binding contract, was not open to slaves in the South.

In October 1837, Emerson was moved to St. Louis, Missouri but left Scott and Scott's wife behind for several months, hiring them out. Hiring out Scott constituted slavery, and was clearly illegal under the Missouri Compromise, the Wisconsin Enabling Act, and the Northwest Ordinance.

Portrait of Dred Scott

In November 1837, Emerson was transferred to Fort Jessup, Louisiana. The following February, he married Irene Marie Sanford and finally sent for Scott and his wife from Minnesota. The Scotts followed Emerson and his family, first to St. Louis and then to Fort Snelling, where they remained until May 1840. During the trip, in what were waters bordering free territories, Eliza Scott, the first child of Dred Scott, was born. In May 1840, Emerson was sent to fight in the Seminole War in Florida and left his wife and slaves behind in St. Louis. After his return, he moved to the free territory of Iowa but left Scott and his wife behind in St. Louis, again hiring them out. In December 1843, Emerson died unexpectedly at the age of forty. Scott and his family worked as hired slaves for the next three years, with Irene Emerson taking in the rent. In February 1846, Scott tried to purchase his freedom from Irene Emerson, but she refused.

In April 1846, he sued for his freedom, arguing that since he had been in both a free state and a free territory he had become legally free, and could not have afterward reverted to being a slave.


Period and context

History of slavery
Slavery in antiquity
Slavery and religion
Atlantic slave trade
African slave trade
Arab slave trade
Slavery in Asia
Human trafficking
Sexual slavery


Unfree labour
Debt bondage
List of slaves
Legal status
Political prisoner
People smuggling


Category:Slave trade

Missouri court history

The first case Scott brought was won on a technicality: Scott could not prove to the court that he was a slave. A judge ordered a second trial in December 1847; Emerson appealed the order for a second trial to the Supreme Court of Missouri, which ruled against her in June 1848. A new trial did not begin until January 1850, and the jury ruled Scott and his family were legally free. Emerson again appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri.

At this point, Emerson turned the responsibility of the case over to her brother, John F. A. Sandford of New York, who acted on her behalf. The Missouri Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision, holding that Scott was still a slave. This decision was inconsistent with the Court's own precedents. Missouri courts had consistently ruled that slaves taken into free states were automatically free. Missouri Chief Justice Hamilton Rowan Gamble, who owned slaves, wrote a dissenting opinion.

The Missouri cases were argued at the St. Louis State and Federal Courthouse (now called the "Old Courthouse"), part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (the "Gateway Arch").

Correspondence with President Buchanan

After the November vote, the President-elect James Buchanan wrote to his friend in the Supreme Court, Justice John Catron, asking whether the case would be decided before his inauguration in March. Buchanan hoped the decision would quell unrest in the country over the slavery issue by issuing a decision that put the future of slavery beyond the realm of political debate.

Buchanan later successfully pressured Justice Grier, a Northerner, to join the Southern majority to prevent the appearance that the decision was made along sectional lines. By present-day standards, any such correspondence would be considered improper ex parte contact with a court; even under the more lenient standards of that century, political pressure applied on a member of a sitting court would have been seen as improper.


The ruling was handed down on March 6, 1857. Chief Justice Taney delivered the opinion of the Court, with each of the justices joining in or dissenting from the decision filed separate opinions. In total, six justices agreed with the ruling, while Samuel Nelson concurred with the ruling but not its reasoning, and Curtis and John McLean dissented.

The Court first had to decide whether it had jurisdiction. Article III, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution provides that "the judicial Power shall extend… to Controversies… between Citizens of different States…" The Court first held that Scott was not a "citizen of a state" within the meaning of the United States Constitution, as that term was understood at the time the Constitution was adopted, and therefore not able to bring suit in federal court. Furthermore, whether a person is a citizen of a state, for Article III purposes, was strictly a federal question. This meant that although any state could confer state citizenship on an individual for purposes of state law, no state could confer state citizenship on an individual for purposes of Article III. In other words, the federal courts did not have to look to who a state conferred citizenship when interpreting the words "citizen of… a state" in the federal Constitution. Rather, it was the federal courts who were to determine who was a citizen of a state for Article III purposes.

Thus, whether Missouri recognized Scott as a citizen was irrelevant. Taney summed up,

Consequently, no State, since the adoption of the Constitution, can by naturalizing an alien invest him with the rights and privileges secured to a citizen of a State under the Federal Government, although, so far as the State alone was concerned, he would undoubtedly be entitled to the rights of a citizen, and clothed with all the rights and immunities which the Constitution and laws of the State attached to that character.

This meant that

no State can, by any act or law of its own, passed since the adoption of the Constitution, introduce a new member into the political community created by the Constitution of the United States.

The only relevant question, therefore, was whether, at the time the Constitution was ratified, Scott could have been considered a citizen of any state within the meaning of Article III. According to the Court, the drafters of the Constitution had viewed all African-Americans as "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

The Court also presented a parade of horribles, describing the feared results of granting Mr. Scott's petition:

It would give to persons of the negro race, …the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, …the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.

Scott was not a citizen of Missouri, and the federal courts therefore lacked jurisdiction to hear the dispute.

Despite the conclusion that the Court lacked jurisdiction, however, it went on to hold that Scott was not a free man, even though he had resided for a time in Minnesota, because the provisions of the Missouri Compromise declaring it to be free territory were beyond Congress's power to enact. The Court rested its decision on the ground that Congress's power to acquire territories and create governments within those territories was limited, and that the Fifth Amendment barred any law that would deprive a slaveholder of his property, such as his slaves, because he had brought them into a free territory. The Court went on to state—although the issue was not before the Court—that the territorial legislatures had no power to ban slavery.

This was only the second time that the Supreme Court had found an act of Congress to be unconstitutional. (The first time was 54 years earlier in Marbury v. Madison.) Curtis, in dissent, attacked that part of the Court's decision as obiter dicta, on the ground that once the Court determined that it did not have jurisdiction to hear Scott's case its only recourse was to dismiss the action, not to pass judgment on the merits of his claims. The dissents by Curtis and McLean also attacked the Court's overturning of the Missouri Compromise on its merits, noting both that it was not necessary to decide the question, and also that none of the Framers of the Constitution had ever objected on constitutional grounds to the United States Congress' adoption of the antislavery provisions of the Northwest Ordinance passed by the Continental Congress, or the subsequent acts that barred slavery north of 36°30'. Nor, these justices argued, was there any Constitutional basis for the claim that African-Americans could not be citizens. At the time of the ratification of the Constitution, black men could vote in ten of the thirteen states. This made them citizens not only of their states but of the United States.

While this ruling is usually considered in terms of its controversial implications for slavery, the holdings of the case also have important implications for property rights. States do not have the right to claim an individual's property that was fairly theirs in another state. Property cannot cease to exist as a result of changing jurisdiction. This interpretation, common to court justices, is often overlooked and interpreted to strictly refer to slavery.


The decision was a culmination of what many at that time considered a push to expand slavery. The expansion of the territories and resulting admission of new states meant that the longstanding Missouri Compromise would cause the loss of political power in the North as many of the new states would be admitted as slave states. Thus, Democratic party politicians sought repeal of the Missouri Compromise and were finally successful in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which naturally ended the "compromise." This act permitted each newly admitted state south of the 40th parallel to decide whether to be a slave state or free state. Now, with Dred Scott, the Supreme Court under Taney sought to permit the unhindered expansion of slavery into the territories.

Although Taney believed that the decision would settle the slavery question once and for all, it produced the opposite result. It strengthened the opposition to slavery in the North, divided the Democratic Party on sectional lines, encouraged secessionist elements among Southern supporters of slavery to make even bolder demands, and strengthened the Republican Party.


The reaction to the decision from opponents of slavery was fierce. The Albany Evening Journal combined two themes in denouncing the decision as both an offense to the principles of liberty on which the nation was founded and a victory for the Slave Power over the free states:

The three hundred and forty-seven thousand five hundred and twenty-five Slaveholders in the Republic, accomplished day before yesterday a great success—as shallow men estimate success. They converted the Supreme Court of Law and Equity of the United States of America into a propagandist of human Slavery. Fatal day for a judiciary made reputable throughout the world, and reliable to all in this nation, by the learning and the virtues of Jay, Rutledge, Ellsworth, Marshall and Story!

The conspiracy is nearly completed. The Legislation of the Republic is in the hands of this handful of Slaveholders. The United States Senate assures it to them. The Executive power of the Government is theirs. Buchanan took the oath of fealty to them on the steps of the Capitol last Wednesday. The body which gives the supreme law of the land, has just acceded to their demands, and dared to declare that under the charter of the Nation, men of African descent are not citizens of the United States and cannot be—that the Ordinance of 1787 was void—that human Slavery is not a local thing, but pursues its victims to free soil, clings to them wherever they go, and returns with them—that the American Congress has no power to prevent the enslavement of men in the National Territories—that the inhabitants themselves of the Territories have no power to exclude human bondage from their midst—and that men of color can not be suitors for justice in the Courts of the United States!

That editorial ended on a martial note:

…All who love Republican institutions and who hate Aristocracy, compact yourselves together for the struggle which threatens your liberty and will test your manhood!

Many abolitionists and some supporters of slavery believed that Taney was prepared to rule, as soon as the issue was presented in a subsequent case, that the states had no power to prohibit slavery within their borders and that state laws providing for the emancipation of slaves brought into their territory or forbidding the institution of slavery were likewise unconstitutional. Abraham Lincoln stressed this danger during his famous "House Divided" speech at Springfield, Illinois, on June 16, 1858:

Put this and that together, and we have another nice little niche, which we may, ere long, see filled with another Supreme Court decision, declaring that the Constitution of the United States does not permit a State to exclude slavery from its limits. …We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free, and we shall awake to the reality instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.

That fear of the "next" Dred Scott decision shocked many in the North who had been content to accept slavery as long as it was confined within its present borders.

It also put the Northern Democrats, such as Stephen A. Douglas, in a difficult position. The Northern wing of the Democratic Party had supported the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 under the banner of "popular sovereignty," arguing that even if Congress did not bar the expansion of slavery into those territories, the residents of those territories could prohibit it by territorial legislation. The Dred Scott decision squarely stated that they could not—even though, strictly speaking, that issue was not before the Court.

Douglas attempted to overcome that obstacle, without challenging the Court's decision directly, by his Freeport Doctrine. Douglas insisted that, even if a territory could not bar slavery outright, the institution could not take root without local police regulations to protect it.

While this doctrine may have allayed Northern Democrats' fears, it was wholly unacceptable to Southern Democrats, who reached a different conclusion from the same premise. As they argued, if hostile territorial governments could obstruct their right to bring their slaves into a territory by refusing to protect that right, then Congress must intervene to pass a federal slave code for all the territories. They often coupled this with threats to secede if Congress did not comply.

At the same time, Democrats characterized Republicans as lawless rebels, provoking disunion by their unwillingness to accept the Supreme Court's decision as the law of the land. Many Northern opponents of slavery had offered a legalistic argument for refusing to recognize the Dred Scott decision as binding. As they noted, the Court's decision began with the proposition that the federal courts did not have jurisdiction to hear Scott's case because he was not a citizen of the State of Missouri. Therefore, so the opponents argued, the remainder of the decision concerning the Missouri Compromise was unnecessary (that is, beyond the Court's power to decide) and invalid (that is, obiter dictum). Douglas attacked this position in the Lincoln–Douglas debates:

Mr. Lincoln goes for a warfare upon the Supreme Court of the United States, because of their judicial decision in the Dred Scott case. I yield obedience to the decisions in that court—to the final determination of the highest judicial tribunal known to our constitution.

Southern supporters of slavery went further, claiming that the decision was essential to the preservation of the union. As the Richmond Enquirer stated:

Thus has a politico-legal question, involving others of deep import, been decided emphatically in favor of the advocates and supporters of the Constitution and the Union, the equality of the States and the rights of the South, in contradistinction to and in repudiation of the diabolical doctrines inculcated by factionists and fanatics; and that too by a tribunal of jurists, as learned, impartial and unprejudiced as perhaps the world has ever seen. A prize, for which the athletes of the nation have often wrestled in the halls of Congress, has been awarded at last, by the proper umpire, to those who have justly won it. The "nation" has achieved a triumph, "sectionalism" has been rebuked, and abolitionism has been staggered and stunned. Another supporting pillar has been added to our institutions; the assailants of the South and enemies of the Union have been driven from their "point d'appui;" a patriotic principle has been pronounced; a great, national, conservative, union saving sentiment has been proclaimed.

But while some supporters of slavery treated the decision as a vindication of their rights within the union, others treated it as merely a step to spreading slavery throughout the nation, as the Republicans claimed. Convinced that any restrictions on their right to own slaves and to take them anywhere they chose were unlawful, they boasted that the coming decade would see slave auctions on Boston Common. These Southern radicals were ready to split the Democratic Party and—as events showed—the nation on that principle.

Frederick Douglass, a prominent African-American abolitionist who thought the decision unconstitutional and the Chief Justice's reasoning inapposite to the founders' vision, recognized that political conflict could not be avoided. "The highest authority has spoken. The voice of the Supreme Court has gone out over the troubled waves of the National Conscience. But my hopes were never brighter than now. I have no fear that the National Conscience will be put to sleep by such an open, glaring, and scandalous issue of lies."

Scott's fate

The sons of Peter Blow, Scott's first owner, purchased emancipation for Scott and his family on May 26, 1857. Scott died nine months later of tuberculosis, on November 7, 1858.

Later references

Historical impact assessment

Charles Evans Hughes, writing on the history of the Supreme Court in 1927 before his appointment as Chief Justice, described the Dred Scott case as a "self-inflicted wound" from which it took the Court at least a generation to recover.[2][3]

Dred Scott and Roe v. Wade

For some in the pro-life movement, Roe v. Wade bears some striking similarities to the Dred Scott decision. To these thinkers, they both asserted that a certain group (African-Americans in Dred Scott, fetuses in Roe) lacks constitutional protections, and in that they represented unnecessary interference by the Court in political matters.[4][5] Those in the pro-choice movement argue that the connection between the two is strained. Roe v. Wade focused on whether a fetus is a person whereas the Dred Scott decision recognized Mr. Scott was a person, but rather ruled that he was not a U.S. citizen.[6][7] However, some pro-life advocates counter with the observation that the question of Dred Scott's citizenship was intimately connected to the court's estimation of his personhood. The Court's decision, presented by Taney, deemed that African-Americans were "beings of an inferior order… so far inferior, that they had no rights." In labeling blacks as "beings of inferior order," the Court implicitly denied their full humanity.

Conservative legal scholars note further that both decisions relied on substantive due process–a doctrine which to its critics represents a broad view of certain Constitutional provisions and a power grab by the judiciary. Under this doctrine, the "life, liberty, or property" clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments are interpreted to give the courts the authority to strike down laws that constitute an "undue" deprivation of "life, liberty, or property." Roe's central holding that abortion is constitutionally protected was eventually (in 1992) cast as among the aforementioned "libert[ies]," and the slave Dred Scott was constitutionally protected "property" according to the Dred Scott v. Sandford majority.

Critics of this claim point out that ruling was made by the same type of strict interpretation of the Constitution that would be necessary to overturn Roe v. Wade. In their ruling, the Supreme Court justices focused on the fact that the Constitution allowed slavery and that the framers did not intend to extend the right of citizenship to slaves. For this to change, an amendment to the Constitution would, therefore, be required. This view was borne out with the passing of the 13th and 14th amendments.

Some conservative scholars argue that another similarity in Dred Scott and Roe is that both decisions aimed to settle a national controversy (slavery in Dred Scott, abortion in Roe), with the unintended result that the debate was stoked even further—culminating in the Civil War after Dred Scott and the politicization of federal judicial appointments after Roe.

These comparisons are not merely academic. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992)—which upheld Roe's central holding that abortion is constitutionally protected—Justice Scalia, joined by three other justices who wanted to reverse Roe, made this comparison to Dred Scott:

[D]red Scott… rested upon the concept of "substantive due process" that the Court praises and employs today. Indeed, Dred Scott was very possibly the first application of substantive due process in the Supreme Court, the original precedent for… Roe v. Wade.

Scalia went on to compare the false expectation by President Buchanan that the Dred Scott decision would settle the issue of slavery, with the false hope of the Roe court that the decision would settle the issue of abortion.

This analogy gained wide exposure when President George W. Bush replied to a question during the second 2004 Presidential debate about possible appointments to the United States Supreme Court by stating, "[T]he Dred Scott case […] is where judges, years ago, said that the Constitution allowed slavery because of personal property rights. That's a personal opinion. That's not what the Constitution says. …And so, I would pick people [for the U.S. Supreme Court] that would be strict constructionists. We've got plenty of lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Legislators make law; judges interpret the Constitution."[8] The comment puzzled some observers, since that case dealt with the issue of slavery, abolished in the United States almost a century and a half previously; some commentators thought that Bush's reply was a rather strange bit of historical minutiae. However, others felt that the statement allowed Bush to send a message to dedicated pro-life voters, who would understand it as a veiled attack on Roe v. Wade, without explicitly calling for an overturning of the decision, which might alienate others.[9]

The comment may have been confusing to some because the apparently implied larger point—that the constitution (prior to the Thirteenth Amendment) disallowed slavery in general—is false. According to article 1, section 2, clause 3 of the Constitution:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

Although the word "slavery" is not found in this passage, the inclusion of indentured servants ("those bound to Service for a Term of Years") for representation and taxation, and the exclusion of "Indians not taxed" leaves only the slaves to be counted at the rate of 3/5 of a person per slave, for purposes of representation and taxation. This was the three-fifths compromise.

Dred Scott and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld

In current affairs related to the War on Terrorism, post-9/11 and illegal combatants captured in resulting conflicts and extraordinary renditions (many of whom are held in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and other black sites), the Scott case has been echoed[10] in that the habeas corpus rights are not granted to the captured, therefore not providing them the constitutional protections which would otherwise apply.

In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the military commissions set up to rule over captured prisoners were illegal with respect to United States' Constitution, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and other laws, international law and the Geneva Convention.


  1. John Vishneski, "What the Court Decided in Dred Scott v. Sandford," The American Journal of Legal History 32(4): 373-390.
  2. U.S. Department of State, Introduction to the court opinion on the Dred Scott case. Retrieved November 22, 2007.
  3. Supreme Courts of the United States, Remarks of the Chief Justice. Retrieved November 22, 2007.
  4. NRLC, Court Blunders on Slavery and Abortion. Retrieved November 22, 2007.
  5. Prolife Liberals, Dred Scott, Again. Retrieved June 26, 2006.
  6. Choice Matters, Legal Abortion: Arguments Pro & Con. Retrieved October 24, 2007.
  7. David Barton, Propaganda Masquerading as History—GOP Operative’s Campaign to Reach African-Americans, People for the American Way.
  8. Washington Post, Second Presidential Debate—President Bush and Sen. John Kerry. Retrieved January 19, 2009.
  9. Slate, Why Bush Opposes Dred Scott—It's code for Roe v. Wade. Retrieved January 19, 2009.
  10. William Rees-Mogg, Will Hamdan Be Another Dred Scott? Retrieved March 8, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Allen, Austin. Origins of the Dred Scott Case: Jacksonian Jurisprudence and the Supreme Court, 1837-1857. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2006. ISBN 9780820328423.
  • Fehrenbacher, Don Edward. The Dred Scott Case, Its Significance in American Law and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. ISBN 9780195024036.
  • Maltz, Earl M. Dred Scott and the Politics of Slavery. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2007. ISBN 9780700615032.

External links

All links retrieved January 30, 2024.


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