Dred Scott v. Sandford | Study Guide

United States Supreme Court

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Course Hero. "Dred Scott v. Sandford Study Guide." October 2, 2018. Accessed October 4, 2022. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Dred-Scott-v-Sandford/.


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Dred Scott v. Sandford | Quotes


And if anything in relation to the construction of the Constitution can be regarded as settled, it is ... the word 'citizen' and the word 'people.'

Chief Justice Taney

Chief Justice Taney argues that there is no leeway possible in the construction, or interpretation, of the words citizen and people as they are used in the U.S. Constitution. He is firm in his conviction that the Founders did not intend to include slaves or their descendants in the class of persons known as citizens, nor to grant them the rights that belong to such citizens. His evidence is his claim that, at the time the Constitution was written, the African race was universally regarded as inferior to the white race, so much so that its inferiority was regarded as a moral axiom—an assumption that is held by all and need not be questioned.


It is not the province of the court to decide upon the justice or injustice, the policy or impolicy, of these laws.

Chief Justice Taney

Having just argued that the African Americans bought and sold as slaves, as well as their descendants, can never be considered citizens because the Founders did not intend them to be granted the rights of citizenship, Taney asserts his belief about the proper function of the courts. For Taney the court exists not to arbitrate disputes according to what justice might demand. The court's sole function is to uphold the Constitution according to a strict construction, meaning that it must be interpreted as its authors intended. Issues of justice, which is to say issues of moral right, should not enter into the decisions made by a judge.


[The framers thought blacks have] no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully reduced to slavery for his benefit.

Chief Justice Taney

In shocking and offensive language, Taney argues that the framers of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence meant to exclude black people from the privileges and rights of citizenship. His argument is based on what he asserts is common, undisputed knowledge, which he claims was universally held among civilized peoples of the world prior to and during the era in which these documents were written. Not only does he argue for the inherent inferiority of the black race, he goes as far as to suggest that slavery is a beneficial condition for such persons. The racist nature of Taney's language aside, his argument may also be criticized because it is based not on facts or reason but on what he claims, without evidence, to be a generally held opinion.


The general words above quoted would seem to embrace the whole human family ... the enslaved African race were not intended to be included.

Chief Justice Taney

After quoting the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, which claim that "all men are created equal" and "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," Chief Justice Taney makes the argument that these words actually mean the opposite of what they say. While the Declaration's language would seem to be clear evidence that black people, along with all other persons, were implicitly included by the Founders in their declaration of equality, Taney tries to use this passage as evidence that black people were meant to be excluded.

There is evidence in the Constitution to suggest that the framers regarded slaves as a different category than citizens.


[The framers were] high in literary acquirements, high in their sense of honor, and incapable of asserting principles inconsistent with those on which they were acting.

Chief Justice Taney

Taney argues that if the framers of the Declaration of Independence had meant to include enslaved black people in the group of persons whom the Declaration states are equal and endowed with inalienable rights, then they would be hypocrites, given that they themselves owned slaves. But these men, Taney asserts, were of such moral character that they were incapable of such hypocrisy. Therefore they clearly did not mean to extend equality or rights to slaves.

The framers did exhibit some inconsistency. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves but also called slavery a "moral depravity" and suspected that it would undermine the unity of the American nation.


They acknowledge that our peculiar security is in the possession of a written Constitution, and they cannot make it blank paper by construction.

Justice Campbell

Justice Campbell argues that the foundation of American liberty and the strength of the United States lie solely in the Constitution. This document must be constructed, or interpreted, according to the intentions of those who wrote it. To interpret the Constitution in the light of one's own opinion or the current popular sentiment is to render the nation's power and security as ineffective as "blank paper."


We view [legalized slavery] as a right existing by positive law of a municipal character, without foundation in the law of nature or the unwritten and common law.

Justice McLean

Justice McLean denies that slavery is a moral condition that can be said to be part of natural law, the set of principles that govern the interactions of humankind above and beyond any legal statutes. Slavery can only exist as a result of "positive law," or legal statues that call it into existence in a particular place. Therefore the status of slave does not follow such persons when they leave the localities where their bondage is prescribed by local laws.


Where no slavery exists, the presumption, without regard to color, is in favor of freedom.

Justice McLean

Slavery can only exist as a result of positive law, another term for legal statutes. It is not a reflection of the supposed inferiority of any race with respect to any other race, nor is it in line with the morality that can be said to govern the relations among people, which is known as natural law. Therefore, when a slave leaves a locality in which the laws have made him a slave, he becomes free.


[A slave] bears the impress of his Maker, and is amenable to the laws of God and man, and he is destined to an endless existence.

Justice McLean

Here, Justice McLean denies the majority opinion that the negro race is inherently inferior to the white race and suitable only to be the property of that superior race. Without explicitly stating it, he implies that in the eyes of God, those who are enslaved are in their personhood, their capacity, and their worth equal to those who claim superiority and hold them in bondage. This is an important denial, because the arguments for slavery tend to hinge on the supposed inherent inferiority of the enslaved.


The Missouri court disregards ... an act of Congress and the Constitution of a sovereign state ... If a state court may do this ... what protection do the laws afford?

Justice McLean

In his dissenting opinion Justice McLean examines the implications of the Missouri Supreme Court's judgment that Scott is not made free by virtue of his residence in free territory. This emancipation is guaranteed by the Congressional act of 1820 known as the Missouri Compromise, as well as by the constitution of the state of Illinois. For the court to ignore these laws is to move away from law and reason and toward arbitrariness and despotism. It is not just illegal, it is dangerous—a fact underscored by the outbreak of the Civil War three years later.


To aver that his ancestors were sold as slaves is not equivalent, in point of law, to an averment that he was a slave.

Justice Curtis

Justice Curtis attacks the question of Scott's status as citizen by examining the plea made by the defendant Sandford, which the majority opinion has taken as the basis for this question. In his plea Sandford only stated that Scott was descended from enslaved Africans, not that he himself was a slave.

Curtis points out that the status of one's ancestors does not necessarily correlate with the status of a person and that the defendant's statement therefore holds no weight to call into question whether or not Scott has jurisdiction to bring a case before the court.


It would not be just ... to allege that [the framers] intended to say that the Creator of all men had endowed the white race, exclusively, with the ... rights ... the Declaration ... asserts.

Justice Curtis

Justice Curtis attacks the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Taney for its central argument, which is that the Founders who authored the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution did not mean to include Africans and their descendants in that class of "all men" who are "created equal" and endowed with "unalienable rights." Taney argues that for the Founders and their contemporaries, it went without saying that black people were not part of this group and that to use language explicitly excluding black people would have been redundant.

Curtis points out that what Taney has actually done with this argument is to imply that the Founders meant to write something other than what they actually wrote. This implication is incompatible with the strict interpretation of the Constitution and its authors' intentions that Taney so aggressively champions.


[This substantial inquiry asks] whether the Constitution has empowered Congress to create privileged classes within the states who alone can be entitled to the franchises and powers of citizenship.

Justice Curtis

Having shown that native-born black people were considered U.S. citizens under the Articles of Confederation, Curtis argues that citizenship must be extended to the same class of persons under the Constitution, unless the Constitution contains explicit language providing for this citizenship to be revoked.

There is no language in the Constitution that gives Congress the right to determine who is and who is not a citizen. Therefore, being a member of the black race or a former slave is not a disqualification of citizenship, despite the contrasting assertion of the majority opinion.


There can be no more effectual abandonment of the legal rights of a master over his slave than by the consent of the master that the slave should [marry].

Justice Curtis

While living in free territory, Dred Scott was married to his wife Harriet by his previous master, Dr. Emerson, who not only consented to the marriage but conducted it himself. Because it is a legally binding contract entered into voluntarily, marriage is a right that can belong only to free persons. Slaves are not granted the autonomy to enter into such contracts, as the very nature of slavery mandates that the slave's will is immaterial and subordinate to that of the slave's master.

Curtis uses this piece of Scott's situation to argue that not only did Scott become emancipated according to the laws of the free territory, his master at the time expressly gave his consent that Scott be freed when he allowed him to enter into the contract of marriage.


What do the character and status of citizen import? ... It does not import the condition of being private property, the subject of individual power and ownership.

Justice Daniel

Justice Daniel argues that a slave cannot be a citizen. Although his conclusion is the same as the majority opinion on this matter, his line of reasoning is different. Daniel makes an etymological and semantic argument, or an argument that is based on the meaning of and relationship between words. He defines a slave as property and a citizen (according to its etymological roots) as a person who participates in political associations. Through these definitions, he argues that the classes of citizen and slave cannot overlap, because a piece of property is incapable of participating in politics.

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