Use these links to skip to different sections:
- Fighting for Freedom
- The Supreme Court Under Roger Taney
- The Dred Scott Decision
- A Nation Torn Apart
In 1857, the United States Supreme Court heard the case of an enslaved man named Dred Scott, who filed suit to free himself and his family. Slavery in the United States was a hotbed issue at the time, an issue that was about to boil over into the bloodiest conflict in American history.
In a 7-2 vote, the Court held that African Americans were not and could not become U.S. citizens. And therefore, Scott had no standing to sue in federal court. Unsurprisingly, the case is known as one of the worst decisions in the Supreme Court's history - sparking a controversy that led the country closer to the Civil War.
Born into slavery in 1799, Dred Scott lived in Virginia, Alabama, and Missouri (all slave states) during the early years of his life. When his owner, Peter Blow, died in 1832, Scott was sold to Dr. John Emerson.
Emerson took Scott to Illinois (a free state) and then to Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory (present-day Minnesota). Years earlier, the Missouri Compromise outlawed slavery in the Wisconsin Territory. While at Fort Snelling, Scott met an enslaved woman named Harriet Robinson.
In a civil ceremony rare for the time, the two married, and Harriet's owner transferred her to Emerson. While living at Fort Snelling, they had two daughters, Eliza and Lizzie. In 1838, Emerson returned to St. Louis with his wife, Irene Sandford, bringing Scott and his family with them.
When Dr. Emerson died suddenly in 1843, ownership of the Scotts transferred to Irene. Dred Scott tried to purchase his family's freedom from Irene several times over the next few years, but she refused. Eventually, she transferred ownership to her brother, John F. A. Sandford.
Fighting for Freedom
Three years after Emerson's death, Dred and Harriet Scott filed separate lawsuits in state court to obtain their freedom. A Missouri statute stated that an enslaved person who was taken to a free territory automatically became free - and they could not be re-enslaved upon their return to a slave state. This rule was known as "once free, always free."
The Scotts knew that slavery was illegal in the Wisconsin Territory where they had lived, so they sued for their freedom under the "once free, always free" rule. In their first trial, they lost on a technicality. But the judge granted a retrial, and in 1850 they won their freedom. When Irene Sandford appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, the Scott's cases were combined, and the state's high court reversed - making Scott and his family slaves once again.
Undeterred, Scott filed suit in federal court, spending four years appealing the decisions of federal judges - all the way to the United States Supreme Court. There, in what is now one of the most infamous decisions of the Court's history, Dred Scott lost his case for freedom.
The Supreme Court Under Roger Taney
In 1857, the Supreme Court was led by Chief Justice Roger Taney. A controversial figure, to say the least, Taney was a staunch believer in states' rights. And although, ironically, he freed those who were enslaved on his family's plantation when he inherited the property - he believed it wasn't up to the federal government to outlaw slavery. Later in his career, Taney became even more unpopular when he challenged President Abraham Lincoln's ability to enact emergency measures during the Civil War.
Taney's name reappeared in the news in recent years when Maryland Governor Larry Hogan decided to remove a 145-year-old statue of Taney from outside the Maryland State House.
The Dred Scott Decision
The Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford did three important things:
- Established that enslaved persons had no rights in federal court
- Declared that slave states no longer had to honor the "once free, always free" rule
- Stated that Congress should never have prohibited slavery in the Wisconsin Territory
One of the situations where a federal court can exercise jurisdiction over a given case is where the plaintiff and defendant are citizens of different states. This is called "diversity of citizenship" and comes from Article III of the Constitution. Rather than decide the merits of the case, the Supreme Court had to determine whether this diversity existed - whether Dred Scott had the right to sue at all.
Whether due to their personal beliefs or political pressure, the majority concluded that people who were descended from those brought from Africa as slaves were never intended to become a part of the American judicial process.
Two justices disagreed with the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford: Benjamin Robbins Curtis and John McLean. Justice McLean submitted a strongly worded dissent, pointing out that the majority had no legal precedent to support its decision:
"No case was cited in the argument as authority, and not a single case precisely on point is recollected in our reports."
Justice McLean concluded that nothing in the Constitution required someone born in the United States to do anything more to become a citizen. "[A]ny individual who has a permanent domicil in the state," he wrote, can sue. The fact that Scott's ancestors had been brought to the country from Africa as slaves was irrelevant.
Justice Curtis wrote that the argument Scott was not a citizen was "more a matter of taste than of law," pointing out that black men were not only considered citizens but could vote in 5 of the 13 states at the time.
A Nation Torn Apart
The decision Taney penned in Scott v. Sandford was met with harsh criticism across the states and territories, except for the slave states. Justice Taney may have hoped that it would put control over slavery back in the hands of the states and ease the tensions rising in the country, but if so, he was sorely mistaken. Instead, the decision in Dred Scott's case fanned the flames of the conflict and brought the country one massive step closer to the Civil War.
Critics attacked the logic of the decision, and it would be many years before the Supreme Court's reputation recovered. Charles Evan Hughes, who took the position of Chief Justice years later, called the ruling a "public calamity" that would undermine confidence in the court for years to come.
Prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglas predicted that the decision would only increase political conflict over slavery, saying:
"[M]y 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 tissue of lies."
One small silver lining in the history of this case comes from the family of Peter Blow, Dred Scott's original owner. Blow's children became abolitionists and helped Scott fund his case throughout the court process. Three months after the devastating loss at the Supreme Court, the remaining Blow family members purchased the Scott family from Sandford - and then freed them. Despite the Court's inhumane decision, which would not be undone for many years, Dred Scott lived the rest of his life a free man.