The History Place -
The Dred Scott Decision
Dred Scott was the name of an African-American slave. He was taken by his master, an
officer in the U.S. Army, from the slave state of Missouri to the free state of Illinois and
then to the free territory of Wisconsin. He lived on free soil for a long period of time.
When the Army ordered his master to go back to Missouri, he took Scott with him back
to that slave state, where his master died. In 1846, Scott was helped by Abolitionist (antislavery)
lawyers to sue for his freedom in court, claiming he should be free since he had
lived on free soil for a long time. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme
Court. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger B. Taney, was a former slave
owner from Maryland.
In March of 1857, Scott lost the decision as seven out of nine Justices on the Supreme
Court declared no slave or descendant of a slave could be a U.S. citizen, or ever had been
a U.S. citizen. As a non-citizen, the court stated, Scott had no rights and could not sue in
a Federal Court and must remain a slave.
At that time there were nearly 4 million slaves in America. The court's ruling affected the
status of every enslaved and free African-American in the United States. The ruling
served to turn back the clock concerning the rights of African-Americans, ignoring the
fact that black men in five of the original States had been full voting citizens dating back
to the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
The Supreme Court also ruled that Congress could not stop slavery in the newly
emerging territories and declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to be
unconstitutional. The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery north of the parallel
36°30´ in the Louisiana Purchase. The Court declared it violated the Fifth Amendment of
the Constitution which prohibits Congress from depriving persons of their property
without due process of law.
Anti-slavery leaders in the North cited the controversial Supreme Court decision as
evidence that Southerners wanted to extend slavery throughout the nation and ultimately
rule the nation itself. Southerners approved the Dred Scott decision believing Congress
had no right to prohibit slavery in the territories. Abraham Lincoln reacted with disgust to
the ruling and was spurred into political action, publicly speaking out against it.
Overall, the Dred Scott decision had the effect of widening the political and social gap
between North and South and took the nation closer to the brink of Civil War.
Dred Scott case: the Supreme Court decision
In March of 1857, the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney,
declared that all blacks -- slaves as well as free -- were not and could never become
citizens of the United States. The court also declared the 1820 Missouri Compromise
unconstitutional, thus permiting slavery in all of the country's territories.
The case before the court was that of Dred Scott v. Sanford. Dred Scott, a slave who had
lived in the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin before moving back to
the slave state of Missouri, had appealed to the Supreme Court in hopes of being granted
Taney -- a staunch supporter of slavery and intent on protecting southerners from
northern aggression -- wrote in the Court's majority opinion that, because Scott was
black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue. The framers of the
Constitution, he wrote, believed that blacks "had no rights which the white man was
bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for
his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and
traffic, whenever profit could be made by it."
Referring to the language in the Declaration of Independence that includes the phrase,
"all men are created equal," Taney reasoned that "it is too clear for dispute, that the
enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people
who framed and adopted this declaration. . . ."
Abolitionists were incensed. Although disappointed, Frederick Douglass, found a bright
side to the decision and announced, "my hopes were never brighter than now." For
Douglass, the decision would bring slavery to the attention of the nation and was a step
toward slavery's ultimate destruction.
Answer the following questions in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org:
1. What was the decision of the Dred Scott case?
2. How did it impact slaves and slave owners?
3. How did the ruling in the Dred Scott case contribute to the Civil War?
4. How would the Supreme Court justify its decision?
5. How does each source illustrate the issue of slavery during the Antebellum period?