Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

In 1834, Dred Scott, a slave of Dr. John Emerson, left the slave state of Missouri with Dr. Emerson. Twelve years later in 1846, Scott sued for his and his family’s freedom on basis of the time they had spent in the free state of Illinois and the free Wisconsin Territory before returning back to Missouri.

The legal precedent in Missouri of "once free, always free" should have made Scott’s suit a routine process. The case was delayed for years due to a legal technicality, while the tensions around the issue of slavery grew. Scott eventually won the case in a lower Missouri court.

Sanford (the brother representing the widowed Mrs. Emerson), appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court which reversed the decision.

Scott’s attorneys then filed suit in federal court. It reached the U.S. Supreme Court where the basic issue before the court was whether, after spending time in a free state and territory if Scott remained a slave.

The court voted 7-2 against Scott. In March 1857, chief justice Roger Taney delivered the decision. Taney held that although some states extended citizenship to blacks, under the terms of the U.S. Constitution, blacks were not and could never be citizens of the United States. And since Scott was not a U.S. citizen, Taney said that he had no standing to sue in federal court.

Taney’s holding on standing should have decided the case, but he continued in an effort to settle the brewing sectional battle over slavery. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was termed unconstitutional. Taney claimed that the Congress had no constitutional powers on issues of slavery.

Supreme Court Judge Benjamin Curtis, who had once defended the Fugitive Slave Act found himself as an unlikely dissenter. Curtis' dissent was lengthy, offering a point-by-point rebuttal to each of Taney's assertions; he believed Taney had used the Court to advance a political agenda. Curtis argued that the road to national citizenship was through state citizenship: anybody deemed by a state to be its citizen was also, by definition, a citizen of the United States.

Curtis conducted a historical review of statutes, case law, and demographic records and stated that in five of the original 13 states, blacks had held citizenship at the time of the Constitution's ratification -- and that they had therefore voted and participated in the process of its ratification. It was “not true that the Constitution was made exclusively by the white race," he wrote. Therefore, blacks were "in every sense part of the people of the United States.” Although Curtis saw the Constitution as providing for the possibility of black citizenship, he stopped far short of endorsing full political equality for blacks.

The Court's decision in Scott v. Sandford caused a political storm, inflaming tensions between North and South and contributing to the Civil War.

Source: Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
© 2007 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

Back to top