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Dred Scott v. Sandford, , commonly referred to as The Dred Scott Decision, was a decision by the United States Supreme Courtmarker that ruled that people of African descent imported into the United States and held as slaves, or their descendants—whether or not they were slaves—were not protected by the Constitution and could never be citizens of the United States. It also held that the United States Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories. The Court also ruled that because slaves were not citizens, they could not sue in court. Lastly, the Court ruled that slaves—as chattel or private property—could not be taken away from their owners without due process. The Supreme Court's decision was written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.

Although Dred Scott was never overruled by the Supreme Court itself, in the Slaughter-House Cases of 1873 the Court stated that at least one part of it had already been overruled in 1868 by the Fourteenth Amendment:

The first observation we have to make on this clause is, that it puts at rest both the questions which we stated to have been the subject of differences of opinion.
It declares that persons may be citizens of the United States without regard to their citizenship of a particular State, and it overturns the Dred Scott decision by making all persons born within the United States and subject to its jurisdiction citizens of the United States.


Portrait of Dred Scott

Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginiamarker between 1795 and 1800. In 1830, he was taken by his owners to Missourimarker. In 1832, U.S. Army Major John Emerson, stationed outside of St. Louis, purchased Scott.

Over the next 12 years, Emerson took Scott along to new assignments at Fort Armstrong, Illinoismarker and later to Fort Snellingmarker in the Wisconsin Territory (present-day Minnesotamarker). Illinois, a free state, had been free as a territory under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and had prohibited slavery in its constitution in 1819 when it was admitted as a state. The federal government had also prohibited slavery within the Wisconsin Territory in the Missouri Compromise in 1820, and had reaffirmed the ban in 1836 with the Wisconsin Enabling Act. Additionally, while at Fort Snelling, Emerson allowed Scott to marry, which slaves were generally not allowed to do under common law, as slaves had no right to enter into legal contracts.

In 1837, the Army ordered Emerson to Jefferson Barracks Military Postmarker, south of St. Louis, Missourimarker. Emerson left Scott and Scott's wife Harriet at Fort Snelling. Emerson was then quickly reassigned to Fort Jessupmarker, Louisianamarker. Emerson married Eliza Irene Sanford in February 1838 in Louisiana. Emerson then sent for Scott and Harriet, who proceeded to Louisiana to serve their master. While en route to Louisiana, Scott's daughter Eliza was born on a steamboat underway along the Mississippi River between the Iowa Territory and Illinois.

Toward the end of 1838, Emerson was once again assigned to Fort Snelling. In 1840, Emerson's wife, Scott, and Harriet returned to St. Louis while Emerson was serving in the Seminole Warmarker. In 1842, Emerson left the Army. He died in the Iowa Territory in 1843, his widow Eliza inheriting his estate, including Scott.

Eliza Irene Emerson continued to hire out Scott after the death of her husband, keeping the rents for herself. Scott then attempted to purchase his freedom, but Emerson refused.

Procedural history

First attempt

After failing to purchase the freedom of his family and himself, and with the help of abolitionist legal advisers, Scott sued Emerson for his freedom in 1846. Scott based his legal argument on precedents such as Somerset v. Stewart, Winny v. Whitesides, and Rachel v. Walker, claiming his presence and residence in free territories required his emancipation. Scott's lawyers argued the same for Scott's wife, and further claimed that Eliza Scott's birth on a steamboat between a free state and a free territory had made her free upon birth. While this suit was awaiting trial, Scott and Harriet had their second daughter, Lizzie.

In June 1847, Scott's suit was dismissed because he failed to provide a witness to testify that Scott was in fact a slave belonging to Emerson.

Scott v. Emerson

At the end of 1847, the judge granted Scott a new trial. Emerson appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of Missouri, who affirmed the trial court's order in 1848.

Due to a major fire, a cholera epidemic, and two continuances, the new trial did not begin until January 1850. While the case awaited trial, Scott and his family were placed in the custody of the St. Louis Countymarker Sheriff, who had continued to rent out the services of Scott, placing the rents in escrow. The jury found Scott and his family were legally free. Faced with the loss of four slaves and a substantial escrow account, Emerson again appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri, although by that point she had moved to Massachusettsmarker and transferred advocacy of the case over to her brother, John F. A. Sanford.

In November 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the jury's decision and reversed much of their prior precedent, holding that Scott was still a slave. Chief Justice William Scott declared:

Scott v. Sanford

In 1853, Scott again sued, but now in federal court. The defendant had become John F.A. Sanford, who had become the executor of John Emerson's estate and had been given control over the case in 1850 when his sister, Emerson's widow, moved to Massachusetts. The grounds for taking the case to federal court was that Sanford was a resident of New Yorkmarker, having returned there in 1853, and that the federal courts could hear the case under diversity jurisdiction provided in Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

At trial in 1854, the federal court directed the jury to rely on Missouri law to settle the question of Scott's freedom. Since the Missouri Supreme Court had held Scott was a slave, the jury found for Sanford. Scott then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Correspondence with President Buchanan

Historians discovered that after the November Missouri Court ruling, the President-elect James Buchanan wrote to U.S. Justice John Catron, asking whether the case would be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court before his inauguration in March 1857. Buchanan hoped the decision would quell unrest in the country over the slavery issue by issuing a ruling that put the future of slavery beyond the realm of political debate.

Buchanan later successfully pressured U.S. Justice Robert Cooper Grier, a Northerner, to join the Southern majority in the Dred Scott decision, to prevent the appearance that the decision was made along sectional lines. By present-day standards, such correspondence as this would be considered improper ex parte contact with a court.

Even under the more lenient standards of that century, Buchanan's applying such political pressure to a member of a sitting court would have been seen as improper. Republicans fueled speculation as to Buchanan's influence on the decision by publicizing that Chief Justice Roger Taney had whispered in Buchanan's ear prior to Buchanan declaring, in his inaugural address, that the slavery question would "be speedily and finally settled" by the Supreme Court.[15599]


The Supreme Court ruling was handed down on March 6, 1857, just two days after Buchanan's inauguration. Chief Justice Taney delivered the opinion of the Court, with each of the concurring and dissenting Justices filing separate opinions. In total, six Justices agreed with the ruling; Samuel Nelson concurred with the ruling but not its reasoning, and Benjamin R. Curtis and John McLean dissented. The court misspelled Sanford's name in the decision.

Opinion of the Court

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 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 question to be decided by the federal courts irrespective of any state's definition of "citizen" under its own law.

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 authors of the Constitution had viewed all blacks 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 argument as to 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 (in what Republicans would label its "obiter dictum") that Scott was not a free man, even though he had resided for a time in Minnesotamarker. The Court held that 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 grounds that Congress's power to acquire territories and create governments within those territories was limited. They held 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. And, the Court asserted that neither slaves "nor their descendants, were embraced in any of the other provisions of the Constitution" that protected non-citizens.

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).

Dissents by Justice Curtis and Justice McLean

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, it must simply dismiss the action, and not pass judgment on the merits of the 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 authors 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 blacks 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. (By the time of the Dred Scott ruling, however, five of the ten states that allowed black men to vote had either restricted this right in some way or completely withheld it.) . Therefore, Justice McLean concluded that the argument that Scott was not a citizen was "more a matter of taste than of law."


Perhaps the most immediate consequence of the decision was to trigger the Panic of 1857. Economist Charles Calomiris and historian Larry Schweikart discovered that uncertainty about whether the entire West would suddenly become either slave territory or engulfed in combat like Bleeding Kansas immediately gripped the markets. What was unusual about the initial panic, though, was that it only struck the railroads running east and west---where the impact of the Dred Scott decision would be greatest (the territories). The bonds of east/west railroads collapsed immediately (although north/south-running lines were unaffected), causing, in turn, the near-collapse of several large banks and the runs that ensued. What followed these runs has been called the Panic of 1857, and it differed sharply from the Panic of 1837 in that its effects were almost exclusively confined to the North. Calomiris and Schweikart found this resulted from the South's superior system of branch banking, in which the transmission of the panic was minor due to the diversification of the southern branch banking systems. Information moved reliably among the branch banks, whereas in the North, the unit banks (competitors) seldom shared such vital information. In the broader scope, the Panic convinced the South that "Cotton is King" and that it had nothing to fear economically from the North unless a move was made to end the system of slavery.

Prior to Dred Scott, Democratic Party politicians had sought repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and were finally successful in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. 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.

The Dred Scott decision, then, represented a culmination of what many at that time considered a push to expand slavery. Southerners at the time, who had grown uncomfortable with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, argued that they had a right, under the federal constitution, to bring slaves into the territories, regardless of any decision by a territorial legislature on the subject. The Dred Scott decision seemed to endorse that view. The expansion of the territories and resulting admission of new states would mean a loss of political power for the North, as many of the new states would be admitted as slave states, and counting slaves as three-fifths of a person would add to their political representation in Congress.

Although Taney believed that the decision represented a compromise that would settle the slavery question once and for all by transforming a contested political issue into a matter of settled law, 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.


Opponents of slavery fiercely attacked the Dred Scott decision. The Evening Journal of Albany, New Yorkmarker combined two themes and denounced the decision as both an offense to the principles of liberty on which the nation was founded, and a victory for slave states 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 can not 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." They argued 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 exercise such prohibition, even though, strictly speaking, that issue was not before the Court.

Without challenging the Court's decision directly, Douglas attempted to overcome that obstacle by creating 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 and a territory could refuse to pass such local support.

This doctrine was wholly unacceptable to Southern Democrats, who reached a different conclusion from the same premise. They argued that 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 position 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 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 (i.e., beyond the Court's power to decide) and invalid (i.e., 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 claimed that the Dred Scott decision was essential to the preservation of the union. As the Richmondmarker 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."

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, prophesied 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."

The Scott family's fate

The sons of Peter Blow, Scott's first owner, purchased emancipation for Scott and his family on May 26, 1857. Their gaining freedom was national news and celebrated in northern cities.

Scott worked in a hotel in St. Louis, where he was considered a local celebrity. He died of tuberculosis only eighteen months later, on November 7, 1858.

Later references

Justice John Marshall Harlan was the lone dissenting vote in the 1896 Supreme Court Plessy v. Ferguson which legalized racial segregation and created the concept of “separate but equal.” In his dissent Harlan wrote that the majority’s opinion would “prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case.”

Charles Evans Hughes, writing in 1927 on the Supreme Court's history, described Dred Scott v. Sandford as a "self-inflicted wound" from which the court would not recover for over a decade.

Justice Antonin Scalia made the comparison between Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) and Dred Scott in an effort to see Roe v. Wade overturned:
[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 noted that the Dred Scott decision, written and championed by Taney, left Taney's reputation irrevocably tarnished. Taney, while attempting to end the question of slavery, a question threatening to tear the country apart, instead wrote a decision that would become one of the many causes of the American Civil War.

See also


  1. Scott v. Sandford
  2. FindLaw for Legal Professionals - Case Law, Federal and State Resources, Forms, and Code
  3. 83 U.S. 36
  4. 1 Mo. 472, 475 (Mo. 1824).
  5. 4 Mo. 350 (Mo. 1836). Rachel is remarkable as its fact pattern was on point for Scott's case. Rachel had been a female slave taken into the free Wisconsin Territory by her owner, who was an army officer. In Rachel, the Supreme Court of Missouri held she was free as a consequence of having been taken by her master into a free jurisdiction.
  6. Fehrenbacher, D. E. (1978). The Dred Scott case. Pg. 2. New York: Oxford University Press.
  7. Abraham Lincoln's Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, June 26, 1857
  8. Charles Calomiris and Larry Schweikart, "The Panic of 1857: Origins, Transmission, Containment," Journal of Economic History, LI, December 1990, pp. 807-34.
  9. Fehrenbacher p. 580
  10. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern PA. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992). FindLaw.
  11. (requires subscription)

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