Dred Scott v. Sandford | Study Guide

United States Supreme Court

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Dred Scott v. Sandford | Summary & Analysis



One Man's Quest for Freedom in a Divided Nation

Dred Scott was born as a slave of the Blow family in Virginia around 1799. In 1803 intense conflict arose over whether slavery should be allowed in the Louisiana Purchase Territory. The conflict was believed to be resolved by Congress with the 1820 Missouri Compromise, under which Congress both admitted Missouri into the union as a slave state and prohibited slavery in the territory north of Missouri's southern boundary, with the exception of Missouri itself.

The case syllabus, or overview, explains that John Emerson and his wife Irene, who purchased Scott from the Blows, took Scott to live in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory (present-day Minnesota), where slavery was prohibited by the Missouri Compromise. Regardless, Scott remained a slave and was later taken back to the slave state of Missouri. In 1846 he tried to buy freedom from Emerson's widow, Irene, for himself and his wife, Harriet Robinson. When Irene refused, the Scotts sued in Missouri state court for false imprisonment, but they lost. Ultimately Scott's supporters refiled the case in Missouri federal court against Irene's brother John Sanford (Sandford), who was managing Emerson's affairs for Irene. The unfavorable decision against Scott was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled not only that Scott had no right to his freedom but also that the Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery north of the 36th parallel, was unconstitutional.

Despite the court's decision, the Scotts were eventually freed on May 26, 1857. Dred Scott died of tuberculosis on September 17, 1858.

Opinion of the Court, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney

In the court's official opinion Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney (1777–1864) writes that Scott's case is out of the court's jurisdiction, meaning the court has no legal right to decide the case. Normally that would be the final word, but Taney takes the opportunity to set a legal precedent to protect the institution of slavery. His invalidation of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and his accompanying racist arguments have been criticized as being extrajudicial—an expression of personal opinion beyond the bounds of the court's right to rule on the case. Taney uses as evidence his own ideas about what the framers of that document and other foundational documents thought about slavery.

First Taney tackles the issue of the jurisdiction, or the right to try cases, of the federal courts. The U.S. government has supreme rule over political matters, Taney writes, yet it cannot exercise rights not set out in the Constitution. Any plea made to the courts must show that the plaintiff has a right to sue as a citizen in a court of the United States. In this case, therefore, the question becomes whether a black man whose ancestors were brought to the country as slaves can become a member of a society formed under the Constitution.

It is not the court's job to consider the justice of this fact but merely to uphold the Constitution in accordance with the intentions of its authors. While a black person like Dred Scott may be granted state citizenship by the state in which he lives, states lack the constitutional power to make such a person a citizen of the United States. Nor are black people granted citizenship by the Constitution. When the document was written, the inferiority of black people and their status as "ordinary article[s] of merchandise" to be "bought and sold" was an opinion considered, in Taney's wording, to be universal among white people.

Taney considers this in light of the Declaration of Independence (1776), which famously states that "all men are created equal [and] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" including "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." He argues that this equality was not meant to be extended to enslaved African Americans. Taney argues that the inferior status of black people was so universally acknowledged that the framers of the Declaration did not need to specify outright that black people were not included in the idea of universal equality and rights. This was understood by all, and to say it explicitly would have been redundant. Taney supports this assertion by citing constitutional clauses and historical state laws that regulate the black race as the enslaved property of the white race. He concludes, finally, that Scott is not a U.S. citizen and that his case against Sandford therefore does not fall within the court's jurisdiction.

Taney Dismantles the Missouri Compromise

Taney then proceeds to argue that Scott is not entitled to his freedom on the basis of his time spent in the Wisconsin Territory and the state of Illinois, where slavery has been made illegal by the 1820 act of Congress known as the Missouri Compromise. This question is closely connected to the issues of states' rights and the limits of federal power to legislate conditions within those states. Taney begins by addressing the criticism that the court ought not rule on any of the issues raised by a case that does not fall within its jurisdiction. Arguing that it is the duty of the court to correct all errors presented by the case, not just jurisdictional questions, Taney cautions that future controversy might be caused if the court does not make comments on the issue.

Taney argues that the powers of the federal government are merely those that are explicitly listed in the Constitution and that any power not addressed within the Constitution is reserved for the states, or as the case may be, for the territorial discernment that is set up to regulate a territory that has not yet become a state. The 5th Amendment to the Constitution states "that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, and property, without due process of law." Therefore slave owners who take a slave into a free territory are protected against the loss of the slave, because a slave is an article of property like any other. The doctrine of extraterrestrial emancipation, which holds that slaves may be freed by virtue of their residence in a free state, is a violation of the property rights expressly granted to citizens by the Constitution. Because the Missouri Compromise of 1820 prohibits slavery in the territory north of the southern border of Missouri, it is in fact a violation of the property rights expressly granted to citizens by the Constitution. The court therefore rules that this act of Congress is unconstitutional.

This is an attempt by the court to set legal precedents that will protect the institution of slavery. The decision establishes that slaves are to be regulated as ordinary property, not as persons. The decision also sets a precedent for limiting the power of the federal legislature in favor of the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which holds that the legality of slavery within a state is to be decided by the state itself. Taney's decision, far from settling these contentious questions that were dividing the country into opposing pro- and anti-slavery factions, acted as powerful kindling for the conflict that would in a few short years ignite the Civil War.

Concurrence, Justice James Moore Wayne

Justice Wayne states that he concurs, or is in full agreement, with both the reasoning and the conclusion of the majority opinion as written by Chief Justice Taney. He devotes his short opinion to praising the Supreme Court's handling of the case as properly thorough without overreaching its legal bounds. He writes that the court, by attending to every question raised by the case, has fulfilled its duty to maintain harmony in a country torn over the question of slavery. This is a rebuttal to the criticism that, given the finding that the Dred Scott case was out of the court's jurisdiction, the court was overreaching its bounds, or acting extrajudicially, in proclaiming the Missouri Compromise of 1820 as unconstitutional.

Concurrence, Justice John Archibald Campbell

Though he agrees with the conclusion and reasoning behind Chief Justice Taney's majority opinion, Justice Campbell presents a long opinion of his own, citing the importance of the issues at hand. Campbell points out that the court lacks evidence that Dred Scott actually resided in free territory. He then begins to argue in favor of slavery as an "ancient right" recognized by the law of nations.

Turning to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Campbell asserts that the federal government has no right to interfere with states' handling of the slavery question. He cites the Ordinance of 1787, which was passed during the framing of the Constitution and mandated that the states should be formed as "distinct republican states" with the power to regulate their own affairs. The federal government's powers are limited to those expressly identified in the Constitution, and the Constitution's silence on a particular issue does not mean the federal government has the right to legislate on that issue. Campbell claims this is unique to the American system of government. Campbell argues that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 amounts to a denial of the relations between Congress and its citizens under the Constitution and that such violations imperil the strength of the United States.

Dissent, Justice John McLean

McLean dissents from, or disagrees with, the majority opinion written by Justice Taney, both in its reasoning and conclusion. Addressing the issue of jurisdiction, which depends on whether Dred Scott is a citizen, McLean asserts that because Scott was born under the Constitution, he is a citizen. McLean argues that Scott is a citizen like anyone else born in the country and therefore has the right to sue in its courts. McLean then turns to the question of whether Scott is made free by his residence in free territory. Citing historical cases both from Europe and the United States, McLean proposes the principle that slavery is limited to locales where it is sanctioned. In other words, laws permitting slavery do not follow a slave when he moves into a place where slavery is not permitted by law. Slavery can only exist by virtue of "positive law," legal statutes passed within a municipality. It is not part of "natural law," the universal moral principles thought to govern humankind, independent of any particular statues.

McLean also directly contradicts points of Taney's and Campbell's arguments.

McLean responds to the majority opinion that slaves are regulated and protected as property by the Constitution, by which argument the Missouri Compromise was declared unconstitutional. McLean writes about property rights and slavery, concluding Scott is indeed entitled to his freedom by virtue of his residence in territories where slavery is prohibited. McLean backs up this assertion by referring, among others, to the 1836 Supreme Court case Rachel v. Walker, in which a slave (Rachel) sued for emancipation on the grounds that her master had taken her from a slave state to a free state. In this case, nearly identical to Scott v. Sandford, the court ruled that Rachel was indeed entitled to her freedom.

For McLean the majority opinion in Scott v. Sandford amounts to the court disregarding the anti-slavery laws of the state of Illinois as well as the 1820 act of Congress known as the Missouri Compromise. Groundlessly favoring the pro-slavery laws of the state of Missouri, it reverses almost 30 years of legal precedent.

Dissent, Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis

Justice Curtis also disagrees with the majority opinion of the court, and his argument elegantly challenges Taney's with a series of facts.

Addressing the question of jurisdiction, he states that the plea made by Sandford contains no proof that Scott himself is or was a slave. This shifts the question of whether a slave can be a citizen to the question of whether someone descended from African enslaved people can be a citizen. If such a person can be a citizen, then the court is bound to treat Scott as a citizen, because no proof is offered to the contrary.

Turning to the Constitution, Curtis examines who can be considered a citizen within the meaning of the document. He argues that all those classes of persons who were citizens of the United States prior to the ratification of the Constitution, when the country was bound by the Articles of Confederation, must be included in this group. The language of the document explicitly grants native-born black people the status of general citizenship for the entire union. Curtis concludes this first argument by stating that he disagrees with the majority opinion that African Americans cannot be U.S. citizens.

Next, Curtis lays out the reasoning for his dissent from the majority opinion that Scott's stay in free territory does not make him free and that the Missouri Compromise is unconstitutional. He calls this ruling "an exertion of judicial power" because the court should have closed the case after it found that Scott lacked the right to sue. Curtis argues that because Scott was not a fugitive slave escaping into free territory but was rather taken to free territory by his master, he is granted his freedom. Further, the fact that Scott was allowed to be married by his then-master, Dr. Emerson, is a sufficient expression of that master's will that his slave be freed, because only a free man has the right to marriage.

Curtis then attacks the majority opinion that the Missouri Compromise (which prohibited slavery north of the southern boundary of Missouri) is unconstitutional. He cites the clause of the Constitution that gives Congress the right to enact all necessary laws regarding U.S. territory. He argues that, contrary to what the majority opinion holds, there is no evidence that such necessary laws must exclude those pertaining to slavery. Nor does Curtis accept the majority's argument that the Missouri Compromise is a violation of the constitutional amendment protecting the private property of citizens. Like the court's other dissenter, Justice Campbell, Curtis asserts that slavery exists only where it is established by law and that this is inferable from the Constitution, which refers to slaves as persons. He concludes that the Missouri Compromise is constitutional.

Separate, Justice Samuel Nelson

Justice Nelson puts forth a separate opinion, meaning that he agrees with the conclusion of majority but not its reasoning. He dismisses the question of jurisdiction, stating that the plea made by Sandford regarding the question of Scott's citizenship should have been excluded from the record brought before the court in accordance with the accepted legal process. Nelson asserts, therefore, that the case of Scott should have been examined only on its merits, or the facts pertinent to the charge made by Scott.

Nelson asserts that the question of slavery is left to the states to determine for themselves and that federal courts must follow the state law. To Nelson only state law governs slavery within a particular state. For this reason the decision of the Missouri Supreme Court—that Scott is not granted his freedom by virtue of the time he spent living in free territory—must stand.

Separate, Justice Robert Cooper Grier

Justice Grier agrees with Justice Nelson's conclusion and reasoning regarding Scott's status, as well as with the majority opinion of Taney that the Missouri Compromise is invalid because it is unconstitutional.

Separate, Justice Peter V. Daniel

Justice Daniel argues that it is a commonly known truth that Africans are uncivilized; other nations have never seen evidence of any organized political behavior among them. For this reason this race of persons is fit only to be the property of European races. Because slaves are merely things to be used by their masters, they cannot be citizens. A citizen cannot, by definition, be an article of property. Citizen, according to its etymology, or root, implies some official connection to the state where the citizen lives, as well as participation in its civic life. Daniel denies that an act of emancipation, or liberation from slavery, can elevate the character of a slave by bestowing upon him or her the capacity to participate in political matters. Emancipation of a slave amounts to the abandonment of property and nothing more.

Separate, Justice John Catron

Dismissing questions of jurisdiction, Justice Catron turns to the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise. For him the central question of the case is the legal extent of Congress's power. He argues that slaves are property and that if Congress takes the power to limit the rights of those who hold this type of property, it must also have the power to interfere with the property rights of those who hold other types of property, such as livestock. This is a violation of the equal rights guaranteed by the Constitution, and therefore the Missouri Compromise violates one of the chief protections granted by the Constitution: equal protection. Having argued that the Missouri Compromise is invalid, Justice Catron concludes that Scott must remain a slave.


The decision only added to the conflict over slavery. It was praised by Southern slaveholders, who felt the decision secured their way of life. Abolitionists denounced the decision as illegitimate in the national news media; they warned that the Dred Scott decision promoted a state of slavery that threatened the liberty of the entire nation. In 1858, while campaigning for a seat in the Illinois State Senate, future president Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) cited the Dred Scott decision in his famous "House Divided" speech, warning that the situation would be resolved only through a great crisis. This crisis came to pass when the Civil War broke out in 1861.

In essence the Scott ruling was overturned by the 13th Amendment (1865) and 14th Amendment (1868) to the Constitution, which, respectively, abolished slavery and guaranteed equal protection under the law. However, some scholars consider that the decision was not practically reversed until almost a century later, with 1954's Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which found segregation in schools unconstitutional. The Brown v. Board of Education decision galvanized the civil rights movement and provided the legal foundation for challenging other segregation laws and forms of legal discrimination that existed for almost 100 years after Scott.

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