Dred Scott v. Sandford, ,
commonly referred to as The Dred Scott Decision,
was a decision by the United States Supreme Court that ruled that people of African descent imported
into the United States and held as slaves, or their
descendantsâ€”whether or not they were slavesâ€”were not protected by
the Constitution and could never be citizens of the United
It also held that the United States Congress
authority to prohibit slavery in federal
. The Court also ruled that because slaves were not
citizens, they could not sue
court. Lastly, the Court ruled that slavesâ€”as chattel
or private propertyâ€”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
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.
Dred Scott was born a slave
in Virginia between 1795
and 1800. In 1830, he was taken by his owners to
Portrait of Dred Scott
1832, U.S. Army Major John Emerson, stationed outside of St. Louis,
next 12 years, Emerson took Scott along to new assignments at
Fort Armstrong, Illinois and later to
Snelling in the
Wisconsin Territory (present-day
Illinois, a free state
, had been free as a
territory under the Northwest
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
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.
the Army ordered Emerson to Jefferson Barracks Military
Post, south of St. Louis, Missouri.
Emerson left Scott and Scott's wife Harriet
at Fort Snelling. Emerson was then quickly reassigned to
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
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 War.
In 1842, Emerson left the Army. He died in
the Iowa Territory in 1843, his widow Eliza inheriting his estate,
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.
After failing to purchase the freedom of his family and himself,
and with the help of abolitionist
advisers, Scott sued Emerson for his freedom in 1846. Scott based
his legal argument on precedents such as Somerset v. Stewart
, Winny v.
, and Rachel
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
affirmed the trial court's order in 1848.
Due to a major fire, a cholera
two continuances, the new trial did not begin until January 1850.
case awaited trial, Scott and his family were placed in the custody
of the St. Louis
County 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 Massachusetts and transferred advocacy of the case over to her
brother, John F. A.
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
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.
grounds for taking the case to federal court was that Sanford was a
resident of New
York, 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.
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
wrote to U.S. Justice John
, 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.
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
concurred with the ruling but not its reasoning, and
Benjamin R. Curtis
dissented. The court misspelled Sanford's name in the
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
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
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
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
argument as to the feared results of granting Mr.
- "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.
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 Minnesota.
The Court held that the provisions of the
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
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 â€” although the issue
was not before the Court â€” 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
Dissents by Justice Curtis and Justice McLean
Curtis, in dissent, attacked that part of the Court's decision as
, 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
by the Continental Congress, or the subsequent acts that barred
slavery north of 36Â°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
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
, and were finally successful in 1854 with the
passage of the Kansas-Nebraska
. 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
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
, 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
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
Opponents of slavery fiercely attacked the Dred Scott decision.
Evening Journal of Albany, New York 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
"The three hundred and forty-seven thousand five
hundred and twenty-five Slaveholders in the Republic, accomplished
day before yesterday a great success â€” as shallow men estimate
They converted the Supreme Court of Law and Equity of
the United States of America into a propagandist of human
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
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 â€” that the Ordinance of 1787 was
void â€” 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 â€” that the American Congress has no power to prevent the
enslavement of men in the National Territories â€” that the
inhabitants themselves of the Territories have no power to exclude
human bondage from their midst â€” 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
at Springfield, Illinois, on June 16
"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
Kansasâ€“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
"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 courtâ€”to the
final determination of the highest judicial tribunal known to our
Southern supporters of slavery claimed that the Dred Scott 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
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 â€” as events showed â€” the nation on that
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
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.
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 â€śseparate but equal.â€ť In his
dissent Harlan wrote that the majorityâ€™s opinion would â€śprove to be
quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the
Dred Scott case.â€ť
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.
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.
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.
- Scott v. Sandford
- FindLaw for Legal Professionals - Case Law, Federal
and State Resources, Forms, and Code
- 83 U.S. 36
- 1 Mo. 472, 475 (Mo. 1824).
- 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.
- Fehrenbacher, D. E. (1978). The Dred Scott case. Pg.
2. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Abraham Lincoln's Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, June 26,
- Charles Calomiris and Larry Schweikart, "The Panic of 1857:
Origins, Transmission, Containment," Journal of Economic
History, LI, December 1990, pp. 807-34.
- Fehrenbacher p. 580
- Planned Parenthood of Southeastern PA. v. Casey,
505 U.S. 833 (1992). FindLaw.
- (requires subscription)