Dred Scott v. Sandford, , 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 descendants—whether or not they were slaves—could never be citizens of the United States, and that the United States Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories. The Court also ruled that slaves could not sue in court, and that slaves—as chattel or private property—could not be taken away from their owners without due process. The Court in the Dred Scott 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. The Supreme Court's decision was written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. Dred Scott was indirectly overruled in the Slaughter-House Cases, which noted that Dred Scott's holding was superseded by the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865, which abolished slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, which guaranteed full rights and citizenship regardless of race. Though it is sometimes said that Dred Scott was never officially overruled, the Slaughter-house cases did note that the post-Civil War 14th Amendment (and thus enacted after the Dred Scott case) had overruled it, although the Court was merely noting the fact that Dred Scott had already been overruled by the amendment; it was not the Court that overruled Dred Scott, but Congress and the states:
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 traveled with his owner, Dr. John Emerson, who was in the army and was often transferred. Scott's extended stay with his master in Illinois, a free state, gave him the legal standing to make a claim for freedom, as did his extended stay at Fort Snelling, Wisconsin Territory (now Minnesota), where slavery was also prohibited. 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, which was illegal under the Missouri Compromise, the Wisconsin Enabling Act, and the Northwest Ordinance.
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 later reverted to being a slave.
At this point, Emerson turned the responsibility of the case over to her brother, John F. A. Sanford 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").
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 whom 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,
This meant that
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
The Court also presented an argument describing the feared results of granting Mr. Scott's petition:
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 grounds 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. However, it should be noted that at the time of the decision, five of the ten States that allowed black men to vote had either restricted this right in some way or completely withheld it.
Before the final decision, John Sanford was deemed insane, and was incarcerated.
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 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," 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 (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 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."
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.”
It was noted by William Rehnquist that the decision in Scott, written and championed by Taney, destroyed Taney's reputation and made him bitterly hated. Taney had hoped that his decision would put an end to the vicious fighting over slavery, by settling the question once and for all. Instead, it became one of the many causes of the American Civil War.
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.
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.