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Dred Scott v. Sandford

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Dred Scott v. Sandford
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued February 11–14, 1856
Reargued December 15–18, 1856
Decided March 6, 1857
Full case nameDred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford[note 1]
Citations60 U.S. 393 (more)
19 How. 393; 15 L. Ed. 691; 1856 WL 8721; 1856 U.S. LEXIS 472
Case history
PriorJudgment for defendant, C.C.D. Mo.
Judgment reversed and suit dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
  1. Persons of African descent cannot be and were never intended to be citizens under the US Constitution. Plaintiff is without standing to file a suit.
  2. The Property Clause is applicable only to lands possessed at the time of the Constitution's ratification (1787). As such, Congress cannot ban slavery in the territories. The Missouri Compromise is unconstitutional.
  3. The Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment prohibits the federal government from freeing slaves brought into federal territories.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Roger B. Taney
Associate Justices
John McLean · James M. Wayne
John Catron · Peter V. Daniel
Samuel Nelson · Robert C. Grier
Benjamin R. Curtis · John A. Campbell
Case opinions
MajorityTaney, joined by Wayne, Catron, Daniel, Nelson, Grier, Campbell
ConcurrenceNelson, joined by Grier
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. V; U.S. Const. art. IV, § 3, cl. 2;; Missouri Compromise
Superseded by
U.S. Const. amends. XIII, XIV, XV;
Civil Rights Act of 1866;
Kleppe v. New Mexico (1976) (in part)[2]

Dred Scott v. Sandford,[note 1] 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857), was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court in which the Court held that the United States Constitution was not meant to include American citizenship for people of African descent, regardless of whether they were enslaved or free, and so the rights and privileges that the Constitution confers upon American citizens could not apply to them.[3][4] The Supreme Court's decision has been widely denounced, both for how overtly racist the decision was and its crucial role in the near collapse of the United States of America four years later.[5] Bernard Schwartz said that it "stands first in any list of the worst Supreme Court decisions—Chief Justice Hughes called it the Court's greatest self-inflicted wound."[6] Junius P. Rodriguez said that it is "universally condemned as the U.S. Supreme Court's worst decision".[7] Historian David Thomas Konig said that it was "unquestionably, our court's worst decision ever."[8]

The decision was made in the case of Dred Scott, an enslaved black man whose owners had taken him from Missouri, a slave-holding state, into Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was illegal. When his owners later brought him back to Missouri, Scott sued in court for his freedom and claimed that because he had been taken into "free" U.S. territory, he had automatically been freed and was legally no longer a slave. Scott sued first in Missouri state court, which ruled that he was still a slave under its law. He then sued in U.S. federal court, which ruled against him by deciding that it had to apply Missouri law to the case. He then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In March 1857, the Supreme Court issued a 7–2 decision against Dred Scott. In an opinion written by Chief Justice Roger Taney, the Court ruled that people of African descent "are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word 'citizens' in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States". Taney supported his ruling with an extended survey of American state and local laws from the time of the Constitution's drafting in 1787 that purported to show that a "perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery". Because the Court ruled that Scott was not an American citizen, he was also not a citizen of any state and, accordingly, could never establish the "diversity of citizenship" that Article III of the U.S. Constitution requires for a U.S. federal court to be able to exercise jurisdiction over a case.[3] After ruling on those issues surrounding Scott, Taney continued further and struck down the entire Missouri Compromise as a limitation on slavery that exceeded the U.S. Congress's constitutional powers.

Although Taney and several other justices hoped the decision would permanently settle the slavery controversy, which was increasingly dividing the American public, the decision's effect was the complete opposite.[9] Taney's majority opinion suited the slaveholding states, but was intensely decried in all the other states.[4] The decision inflamed the national debate over slavery and deepened the divide that led ultimately to the Civil War. In 1865, after the Union's victory, the Court's ruling in Dred Scott was superseded by the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, whose first section guaranteed citizenship for "all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof".


Political setting[edit]

The Missouri Compromise created the slave-holding state Missouri (Mo., yellow) but prohibited slavery in the rest of the former Louisiana Territory (here, marked Missouri Territory 1812, green) north of the 36°30' North parallel.

In the late 1810s, a major political dispute arose over the creation of new American states from the vast territory the United States had acquired from France in 1803 through the Louisiana Purchase.[10] The dispute centered on whether the new states would be "free" states like the existing Northern states in which slavery would be illegal, or whether they would be "slave" states like the existing Southern states in which slavery would be legal.[10] The Southern states wanted the new states to be slave states in order to enhance their own political and economic power. The Northern states wanted the new states to be free states for their own political and economic reasons, as well as their moral concerns over allowing the institution of slavery to expand.

In 1820, the U.S. Congress passed legislation known as the "Missouri Compromise" that was intended to resolve the dispute. The Compromise first admitted Maine into the Union as a free state, then created Missouri out of a portion of the Louisiana Purchase territory and admitted it as a slave state; at the same time it prohibited slavery in the area north of the Parallel 36°30′ north, where most of the territory lay.[10] The legal effects of a slaveowner taking his slaves from Missouri into the free territory north of the 36°30′ north parallel, as well as the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise itself, eventually came to a head in the Dred Scott case.

Dred Scott and John Emerson[edit]

Dred Scott

Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia around 1799.[11] Little is known of his early years.[12] His owner, Peter Blow, moved to Alabama in 1818, taking his six slaves along to work a farm near Huntsville. In 1830, Blow gave up farming and settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where he sold Scott to U.S. Army surgeon Dr. John Emerson.[13] After purchasing Scott, Emerson took him to Fort Armstrong in Illinois. A free state, Illinois had been free as a territory under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and had prohibited slavery in its constitution in 1819 when it was admitted as a state.

In 1836, Emerson moved with Scott from Illinois to Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin territory in what has become the state of Minnesota. Slavery in the Wisconsin Territory (some of which, including Fort Snelling, was part of the Louisiana Purchase) was prohibited by the U.S. Congress under the Missouri Compromise. During his stay at Fort Snelling, Scott married Harriet Robinson in a civil ceremony by Harriet's owner, Major Lawrence Taliaferro, a justice of the peace who was also an Indian agent. The ceremony would have been unnecessary had Dred Scott been a slave, as slave marriages had no recognition in the law.[14][13]

In 1837, the army ordered Emerson to Jefferson Barracks Military Post, south of St. Louis. Emerson left Scott and his wife at Fort Snelling, where he leased their services out for profit. By hiring Scott out in a free state, Emerson was effectively bringing the institution of slavery into a free state, which was a direct violation of the Missouri Compromise, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Wisconsin Enabling Act.[14]

Before the end of the year, the army reassigned Emerson to Fort Jesup in Louisiana, where Emerson married Eliza Irene Sanford in February 1838. Emerson sent for Scott and Harriet, who proceeded to Louisiana to serve their master and his wife. While en route to Louisiana, Scott's daughter Eliza was born on a steamboat underway on the Mississippi River between Illinois and what would become Iowa. Because Eliza was born in free territory, she was technically born as a free person under both federal and state laws. Upon entering Louisiana, the Scotts could have sued for their freedom, but did not. One scholar suggests that, in all likelihood, the Scotts would have been granted their freedom by a Louisiana court, as it had respected laws of free states that slaveholders forfeited their right to slaves if they brought them in for extended periods. This had been the holding in Louisiana state courts for more than 20 years.[14]

Toward the end of 1838, the army reassigned Emerson back to Fort Snelling. By 1840, Emerson's wife Irene returned to St. Louis with their slaves, while Dr. Emerson served in the Seminole War. While in St. Louis, she hired them out. In 1842, Emerson left the army. After he died in the Iowa Territory in 1843, his widow Irene inherited his estate, including the Scotts. For three years after John Emerson's death, she continued to lease out the Scotts as hired slaves. In 1846, Scott attempted to purchase his and his family's freedom, but Irene Emerson refused, prompting Scott to resort to legal recourse.[15]

Procedural history[edit]

First attempt[edit]

Having been unsuccessful in his attempt to purchase freedom for his family and himself, Scott, with the help of abolitionist legal advisers, sued Emerson for his freedom in a Missouri court in 1846. Scott received financial assistance for his case from the family of his previous owner, Peter Blow.[14] Blow's daughter Charlotte was married to Joseph Charless, an officer at the Bank of Missouri. Charless signed the legal documents as security for Dred Scott and secured the services of the bank's attorney, Samuel Mansfield Bay, for the trial.[13]

Scott based his legal argument on precedents such as Somersett v. Stewart, Winny v. Whitesides,[16] and Rachel v. Walker,[17] claiming his presence and residence in free territories required his emancipation. Scott's lawyers argued the same for his wife and claimed that Eliza Scott's birth on a steamboat between a free state and a free territory had made her free upon birth.

It was expected that the Scotts would win their freedom with relative ease since Missouri courts had heard more than ten other cases in which they had freed slaves who had been taken into free territory.[14] Furthermore, the case had been assigned to Judge Alexander Hamilton, who was known to be sympathetic to slave freedom suits.[13] Scott was represented by three lawyers during the course of the case because it was over a year from the time of the original petition filing to the trial. His first lawyer was Francis B. Murdoch, who was replaced by Charles D. Drake. When Drake left St. Louis in 1847, Samuel M. Bay took over as Scott's lawyer.[18] In June 1847, Scott lost his case by a technicality since he had not proven that he was actually enslaved by Irene Emerson. At the trial, the grocer Samuel Russell had testified that he was leasing Scott from Irene Emerson, but on cross-examination, he admitted that the leasing arrangements had actually been made by his wife, Adeline. Thus, Russell's testimony was ruled hearsay, and the jury returned a verdict for Emerson.[13]

Scott v. Emerson[edit]

In December 1847, Judge Hamilton granted Scott a new trial. Emerson appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of Missouri, which affirmed the trial court's order in 1848. A major fire, a cholera epidemic, and two continuances delayed the new trial until January 1850. While the case awaited trial, Scott and his family were placed in the custody of the St. Louis County Sheriff, who continued to lease out the services of Scott and his family. The proceeds were placed in escrow, to be paid to Scott's owner or to himself upon resolution of the case.

In the 1850 trial, Scott was represented by Alexander P. Field and David N. Hall, both of whom had previously shared offices with Charles Edmund LaBeaume, the brother of Peter Blow's daughter-in-law. The hearsay problem was surmounted by a deposition from Adeline Russell stating that she had leased the Scotts from Emerson. The jury found in favor of Scott and his family. Unwilling to accept the loss of four slaves and a substantial escrow account, Emerson appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri, but she had moved to Massachusetts and transferred ownership of Scott to her brother, John F. A. Sanford.

In November 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the trial court's decision and held that the Scotts were still legally slaves and that they should have sued for freedom while they lived in a free state. Chief Justice William Scott declared:

Times are not now as they were when the former decisions on this subject were made. Since then not only individuals but States have been possessed with a dark and fell spirit in relation to slavery, whose gratification is sought in the pursuit of measures, whose inevitable consequences must be the overthrow and destruction of our government. Under such circumstances it does not behoove the State of Missouri to show the least countenance to any measure which might gratify this spirit. She is willing to assume her full responsibility for the existence of slavery within her limits, nor does she seek to share or divide it with others.[19]

Scott v. Sandford[edit]

The case looked hopeless, and the Blow family could no longer pay for Scott's legal costs. Scott also lost both of his lawyers when Alexander Field moved to Louisiana and David Hall died. The case was undertaken pro bono by Roswell Field, who employed Scott as a janitor. Field also discussed the case with LaBeaume, who had taken over the lease on the Scotts in 1851.[20] After the Missouri Supreme Court decision, Judge Hamilton turned down a request by Emerson's lawyers to release the rent payments from escrow and to deliver the slaves into their owner's custody.[13]

In 1853, Dred Scott again sued his current owner John Sanford, but this time in federal court. Sanford returned to New York and the federal courts had diversity jurisdiction under Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. In addition to the existing complaints, Scott alleged that Sanford had assaulted his family and held them captive for six hours on January 1, 1853.[21]

At trial in 1854, Judge Robert William Wells directed the jury to rely on Missouri law on the question of Scott's freedom. Since the Missouri Supreme Court had held that Scott remained a slave, the jury found in favor of Sanford. Scott then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the clerk misspelled the defendant’s name, and the case was recorded as Dred Scott v. Sandford, with an ever-erroneous title. Scott was represented before the Supreme Court by Montgomery Blair and George Ticknor Curtis, whose brother Benjamin was a Supreme Court Justice. Sanford was represented by Reverdy Johnson and Henry S. Geyer.[13]

Sandford as defendant[edit]

When the case was filed, the two sides agreed on a statement of facts that claimed Scott had been sold by Dr. Emerson to John Sanford, though this was a legal fiction. Dr. Emerson had died in 1843, and Dred Scott had filed his 1847 suit against Irene Emerson. There is no record of Dred Scott's transfer to Sanford or of his transfer back to Irene. John Sanford died shortly before Scott's manumission, and Scott was not listed in the probate records of Sanford's estate.[20] Also, Sanford was not acting as Dr. Emerson's executor, as he was never appointed by a probate court, and the Emerson estate had been settled when the federal case was filed.[14]

The murky circumstances of ownership led many to conclude the parties to Dred Scott v. Sandford contrived to create a test case.[15][20][21] Mrs. Emerson's remarriage to abolitionist U.S. Representative Calvin C. Chaffee seemed suspicious to contemporaries, and Sanford was thought to be a front and to have allowed himself to be sued, despite not actually being Scott's owner. Nevertheless, Sanford had been involved in the case since 1847, before his sister married Chaffee. He had secured counsel for his sister in the state case, and he engaged the same lawyer for his own defense in the federal case.[15] Sanford also consented to be represented by genuine pro-slavery advocates before the Supreme Court, rather than to put up a token defense.

Influence of President Buchanan[edit]

Historians discovered that after the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case but before it issued a ruling, President-elect James Buchanan wrote to his friend, Supreme Court Associate Justice John Catron, to ask whether the case would be decided by the Court before his inauguration in March 1857.[22] Buchanan hoped that the decision would quell unrest in the country over the slavery issue by issuing a ruling to take it out of political debate.

Buchanan later successfully pressured Associate Justice Robert Cooper Grier, a Northerner, to join the Southern majority in Dred Scott to prevent the appearance that the decision was made along sectional lines.[23] Biographer Jean H. Baker articulates the view that Buchanan's use of political pressure on a member of a sitting court was regarded then, as now, to be highly improper.[24] Republicans fueled speculation as to Buchanan's influence by publicizing that Taney had secretly informed Buchanan of the decision. Buchanan declared in his inaugural address that the slavery question would "be speedily and finally settled" by the Supreme Court.[25][14]

Supreme Court decision[edit]

On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court ruled against Dred Scott in a 7–2 decision that fills over 200 pages in the United States Reports.[10] The decision contains opinions from all nine justices, but the "majority opinion" of the court has always been the focus of the controversy.[26]

Opinion of the Court[edit]

Chief Justice Roger Taney, the author of the majority opinion in the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision

Seven justices formed the majority and joined an opinion written by Chief Justice Roger Taney. Taney began with what he saw as the core issue in the case: whether or not black people could possess federal U.S. citizenship under the Constitution.[10]

The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all of the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied [sic] by that instrument to the citizen?

— Dred Scott, 60 U.S. at 403.

In answer, the Court ruled that they could not. It held that black people could not be American citizens, and therefore a lawsuit to which they were a party could never qualify for the "diversity of citizenship" that Article III of the Constitution requires for American federal courts to have jurisdiction over cases that do not involve federal questions.[10]

The primary rationale for the Court's ruling was Taney's assertion that black African slaves and their descendants were never intended to be part of the American social and political landscape.[10]

We think ... that [black people] are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word "citizens" in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time [of America's founding] considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.

— Dred Scott, 60 U.S. at 404–05.[27]

Taney then extensively reviewed laws from the original American states that involved the status of black Americans at the time of the Constitution's drafting in 1787.[10] He concluded that these laws showed that a "perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery".[28] Thus, he concluded, black people were not American citizens, and could not sue as citizens in federal courts.[10] This meant that U.S. states lacked the power to alter the legal status of black people by granting them state citizenship.[26]

It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race, which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted. ... They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order ... and so far inferior, that they 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.

— Dred Scott, 60 U.S. at 407.

This holding normally would have ended the decision, since it disposed of Dred Scott's case. But Taney did not conclude the matter before the Court in the normal manner.[10] He went on to assess the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise itself, writing that the Compromise's legal provisions intended to free slaves who were living north of the 36°N latitude line in the western territories. However, in the Court's judgment, this would constitute the government depriving slaveowners of their property—since slaves were legally the property of their owners—without due process of law, which is forbidden under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.[29] Taney also reasoned that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights implicitly precluded any possibility of constitutional rights for black African slaves and their descendants.[26] Thus, Taney concluded:

Now, ... the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution. ... Upon these considerations, it is the opinion of the court that the act of Congress which prohibited a citizen from holding and owning property of this kind in the territory of the United States north of the [36°N 36' latitude] line therein mentioned, is not warranted by the Constitution, and is therefore void.

— Dred Scott, 60 U.S. at 451–52.

Taney held that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, marking the first time since the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison that the Supreme Court had struck down a federal law, though the Missouri Compromise had already been effectively overridden by the Kansas–Nebraska Act. Taney made this argument on a narrow definition of the Property Clause of Section 3 of Article 4 of the Constitution. The Property Clause states, "The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States..." Taney made the argument that the Property Clause "applied only to the property which the States held in common at that time, and has no reference whatever to any territory or other property which the new sovereignty might afterwards itself acquire." (Dred Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 149.) Essentially, Taney asserted that because the Northwest Territory was not part of the United States at the time of the Constitution's ratification, Congress did not have the authority to ban slavery in the territory. Therefore according to Taney, Missouri Compromise exceeded the scope of Congress's powers and was unconstitutional, and thus Dred Scott was still a slave regardless of his time spent in the parts of the Northwest Territory that were north of 36°N.[30] Therefore, he was still a slave under Missouri law, and the Court had to follow Missouri law in the matter. For all these reasons, the Court concluded, Dred Scott could not bring suit in U.S. federal court.[30]


Justices Benjamin Robbins Curtis (left) and John McLean (right), the only two justices who dissented in Dred Scott

Justices Benjamin Robbins Curtis and John McLean were the only two dissenters from the Court's decision. Curtis's 67-page dissent argued that Taney's assertion that black people could not possess federal U.S. citizenship was historically and legally baseless.[26] Curtis pointed out that in 1789, when the Constitution was ratified, black men could vote in five of the 13 U.S. states. Legally, that made them citizens both of their states and of the United States.[31] Curtis cited many state statutes and state court decisions supporting his position. His dissent was "extremely persuasive", and it prompted Taney to spend several weeks adding 18 additional pages to his opinion in an attempt to rebut Curtis's arguments.[26]

McLean's dissent deemed the argument that black people could not be citizens "more a matter of taste than of law". He attacked much of the Court's decision as obiter dicta that was not legally authoritative on the ground that once the court determined that it did not have jurisdiction to hear Scott's case, it should have simply dismissed the action, rather than passing judgment on the merits of the claims.

Curtis and McLean both attacked the Court's overturning of the Missouri Compromise on its merits. They noted that it was not necessary to decide the question and that none of the authors of the Constitution had ever objected on constitutional grounds to the Congress's 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' N, or the prohibition on importing slaves from overseas passed in 1808. Curtis said slavery was not listed in the constitution as a "natural right", but rather a creation of municipal law. He pointed out the constitution said "The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State." Since slavery was not mentioned as an exception, he felt a prohibition of it fell within the scope of needed rules and regulations Congress was free to pass.[32]


The Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott was "greeted with unmitigated wrath from every segment of the United States except the slave holding states."[26] The American political historian Robert G. McCloskey described:

The tempest of malediction that burst over the judges seems to have stunned them; far from extinguishing the slavery controversy, they had fanned its flames and had, moreover, deeply endangered the security of the judicial arm of government. No such vilification as this had been heard even in the wrathful days following the Alien and Sedition Acts. Taney’s opinion was assailed by the Northern press as a wicked “stump speech” and was shamefully misquoted and distorted. “If the people obey this decision," said one newspaper, "they disobey God."[30]

Many Republicans, including Abraham Lincoln, who was rapidly becoming the leading Republican in Illinois, regarded the decision as part of a plot to expand and eventually impose the legalization of slavery throughout all of the states.[33] Some southern extremists wanted all states to recognize slavery as a constitutional right. Lincoln rejected the court's majority opinion that "the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution," pointing out that the constitution did not ever mention property in reference to slaves and in fact explicitly referred to them as "persons".[34] Southern Democrats considered Republicans to be lawless rebels who were provoking disunion by their refusal to accept the Supreme Court's decision as the law of the land. Many northern opponents of slavery offered a legal argument for refusing to recognize the Dred Scott decision on the Missouri Compromise as binding. They argued that the Court's determination that the federal courts had no jurisdiction to hear the case rendered the remainder of the decision obiter dictum—a non binding passing remark rather than an authoritative interpretation of the law. Douglas attacked that 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.

Democrats had refused to accept the court's interpretation of the U.S. Constitution as permanently binding. During the Andrew Jackson administration, Taney, then Attorney General, had written:

Whatever may be the force of the decision of the Supreme Court in binding the parties and settling their rights in the particular case before them, I am not prepared to admit that a construction given to the constitution by the Supreme Court in deciding any one or more cases fixes of itself irrevokably [sic] and permanently its construction in that particular and binds the states and the Legislative and executive branches of the General government, forever afterwards to conform to it and adopt it in every other case as the true reading of the instrument although all of them may unite in believing it erroneous.[35]

Frederick Douglass, a prominent black abolitionist who considered the decision to be unconstitutional and Taney's reasoning contrary to the Founding Fathers' vision, predicted 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 tissue of lies....[36]

According to Jefferson Davis, then a U.S. Senator from Mississippi, and future President of the Confederate States of America, the case merely “presented the question whether Cuffee[37] should be kept in his normal condition or not . . . [and] whether the Congress of the United States could decide what might or might not be property in a Territory–the case being that of an officer of the army sent into a Territory to perform his public duty, having taken with him his negro slave".[38]

Final years of the Scott family[edit]

Irene Emerson moved to Massachusetts in 1850 and married Calvin C. Chaffee, a doctor and abolitionist who was elected to Congress on the Know Nothing and Republican tickets. Following the Supreme Court ruling, pro-slavery newspapers attacked Chaffee as a hypocrite. Chaffee protested that Dred Scott belonged to his brother-in-law and that he had nothing to do with Scott's enslavement.[21] Nevertheless, the Chaffees executed a deed transferring the Scott family to Henry Taylor Blow, the son of Scott's former owner, Peter Blow. Chaffee’s lawyer suggested the transfer as the most convenient way of freeing Scott since Missouri law required manumitters to appear in person before the court.[21]

Taylor Blow filed the manumission papers with Judge Hamilton on May 26, 1857. The emancipation of Dred Scott and his family was national news and was celebrated in northern cities. Scott worked as a porter in a hotel in St. Louis, where he was a minor celebrity. His wife took in laundry.

Dred Scott died of tuberculosis on November 7, 1858. Harriet died on June 17, 1876.[13]



Economist Charles Calomiris and historian Larry Schweikart discovered that uncertainty about whether the entire West would suddenly become slave territory or engulfed in combat like "Bleeding Kansas" gripped the markets immediately. The east–west railroads collapsed immediately (although north–south lines were unaffected), causing, in turn, the near-collapse of several large banks and the runs that ensued. What followed the runs has been called the Panic of 1857.

The Panic of 1857, unlike the Panic of 1837, almost exclusively impacted the North, a fact that Calomiris and Schweikart attribute to the South's system of branch banking, as opposed to the North's system of unit banking. In the South's branch banking system information moved reliably among the branch banks and transmission of the panic was minor. Northern unit banks, in contrast, were competitors and seldom shared such vital information.[39]


The decision was hailed in southern slaveholding society as a proper interpretation of the US Constitution. According to Jefferson Davis, then a US Senator from Mississippi who later became the President of the Confederate States, the Dred Scott case was merely a question of "whether Cuffee should be kept in his normal condition or not".[40] ("Cuffee" was a common slave name and was also used to refer to a black person, since slavery was a racial caste.)[41]

Before Dred Scott, Democratic Party politicians had sought repeal of the Missouri Compromise and were finally successful in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act. It allowed each newly-admitted state south of the 40th parallel to vote as to whether to be a slave state or free state. With Dred Scott, Taney's Supreme Court permitted the unhindered expansion of slavery into all the territories.

Thus, Dred Scott decision represented a culmination of what many at that time considered a push to expand slavery. Southerners, who had grown uncomfortable with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, argued that they had a constitutional right to bring slaves into the territories, regardless of any decision by a territorial legislature on the subject. The Dred Scott decision seemed to endorse that view. The expansion of slavery into the territories and resulting admission of new states would mean a loss of northern political power, as many of the new states would be admitted as slave states. Counting three fifths of the slave population for apportionment would add to the slaveholding states' political representation in Congress.

Although Taney believed that the decision represented a compromise that would be a final settlement of the slavery question by transforming a contested political issue into a matter of settled law, the decision produced the opposite result. It strengthened Northern opposition to slavery, divided the Democratic Party on sectional lines, encouraged secessionist elements among Southern supporters of slavery to make bolder demands, and strengthened the Republican Party.

Later references[edit]

In 1859, when defending John Anthony Copeland and Shields Green from the charge of treason, following their participation in John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, their attorney, George Sennott, cited the Dred Scott decision in arguing successfully that since they were not citizens according to that Supreme Court ruling, they could not commit treason.[42] The charge of treason was dropped, but they were found guilty and executed on other charges.

Justice John Marshall Harlan was the lone dissenting vote in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which declared racial segregation constitutional 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".[43]

Charles Evans Hughes, writing in 1927 on the Supreme Court's history, described Dred Scott v. Sandford as a "self-inflicted wound" from which the court would not recover for many years.[44][45][46]

In a memo to Justice Robert H. Jackson in 1952, for whom he was clerking, on the subject of Brown v. Board of Education, the future Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote that "Scott v. Sandford was the result of Taney's effort to protect slaveholders from legislative interference."[47]

Justice Antonin Scalia made the comparison between Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) and Dred Scott in an effort to see Roe v. Wade overturned:

Dred 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.[48]

Scalia noted that the Dred Scott decision had been written and championed by Taney and left the justice's reputation irrevocably tarnished. Taney, who was attempting to end the disruptive question of the future of slavery, wrote a decision that "inflamed the national debate over slavery and deepened the divide that led ultimately to the Civil War".[49]

Chief Justice John Roberts compared Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) to Dred Scott, as another example of trying to settle a contentious issue through a ruling that went beyond the scope of the Constitution.[50]


  • 1977: The Scotts' great-grandson, John A. Madison, Jr., an attorney, gave the invocation at the ceremony at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, a National Historic Landmark, for the dedication of a National Historic Marker commemorating the Scotts' case tried there.[51]
  • 2000: Harriet and Dred Scott's petition papers in their freedom suit were displayed at the main branch of the St. Louis Public Library, following the discovery of more than 300 freedom suits in the archives of the U.S. circuit court.[52]
  • 2006: A new historic plaque was erected at the Old Courthouse to honor the active roles of both Dred and Harriet Scott in their freedom suit and the case's significance in U.S. history.[53]
  • 2012: A monument depicting Dred and Harriet Scott was erected at the Old Courthouse's east entrance facing the St. Louis Gateway Arch.[54]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b John Sandford's surname was actually "Sanford". A Supreme Court clerk of court misspelled his name in 1856 and the error was never corrected.[1]


  1. ^ Vishneski (1988), p. 373, note 1.
  2. ^ Daniel A. Farber, A Fatal Loss of Balance: Dred Scott Revisited, UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper No. 1782963 (2011).
  3. ^ a b Chemerinsky (2015), p. 722.
  4. ^ a b Nowak & Rotunda (2012), §18.6.
  5. ^ Staff (October 14, 2015). "13 Worst Supreme Court Decisions of All Time". FindLaw. Retrieved June 10, 2021.
  6. ^ Bernard Schwartz (1997). A Book of Legal Lists: The Best and Worst in American Law. Oxford University Press. p. 70.
  7. ^ Junius P. Rodriguez (2007). Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 1. ISBN 9781851095445.
  8. ^ David Konig; et al. (2010). The Dred Scott Case: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Race and Law. Ohio University Press. p. 213. ISBN 9780821419120.
  9. ^ Chemerinsky (2015), p. 723.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Chemerinsky (2019), § 9.3.1, p. 750.
  11. ^ Melvin I. Urofsky, Dred Scott at the Encyclopædia Britannica
  12. ^ Earl M. Maltz, Dred Scott and the Politics of Slavery (2007)
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h "Missouri's Dred Scott Case, 1846–1857". Missouri Digital Heritage: African American History Initiative. Retrieved July 15, 2015.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Finkelman (2007).
  15. ^ a b c Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (2001)
  16. ^ 1 Mo. 472, 475 (Mo. 1824).
  17. ^ 4 Mo. 350 (Mo. 1836). Rachel is remarkable, as its fact pattern mirrored Scott's case. Rachel had been a female slave taken into the free Wisconsin Territory by her owner, who was an army officer. In Rachel, the Supreme Court of Missouri held that she was free as a consequence of having been taken by her master into a free jurisdiction.
  18. ^ Ehrlich, Walter (2007). They Have No Rights: Dred Scott's Struggle for Freedom. Applewood Books.
  19. ^ Scott v. Emerson, 15 Mo. 576, 586 (Mo. 1852) Archived 2013-12-13 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved August 20, 2012.
  20. ^ a b c Ehrlich, Walter (September 1968). "Was the Dred Scott Case Valid?". The Journal of American History. Organization of American Historians. 55 (2): 256–265. doi:10.2307/1899556. JSTOR 1899556.
  21. ^ a b c d Hardy, David T. (2012). "Dred Scott, John San(d)ford, and the Case for Collusion" (PDF). Northern Kentucky Law Review. 41 (1). Archived from the original (PDF) on October 10, 2015.
  22. ^ Maltz, Earl M. (2007). Dred Scott and the politics of slavery. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-7006-1502-5.
  23. ^ Faragher, John Mack; et al. (2005). Out of Many: A History of the American People (Revised Printing (4th Ed) ed.). Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall. p. 388. ISBN 0-13-195130-0.
  24. ^ Baker, Jean H. (2004). James Buchanan: The American Presidents Series: The 15th President, 1857–1861. Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-8050-6946-4.
  25. ^ "James Buchanan: Inaugural Address. U.S. Inaugural Addresses. 1989". Retrieved July 26, 2012.
  26. ^ a b c d e f Nowak & Rotunda (2012), § 18.6.
  27. ^ Quoted in part in Chemerinsky (2019), § 9.3.1, p. 750.
  28. ^ Chemerinsky (2019), § 9.3.1, p. 750, quoting Dred Scott, 60 U.S. at 409.
  29. ^ Chemerinsky (2019), § 9.3.1, pp. 750–51.
  30. ^ a b c McCloskey (2010), p. 62.
  31. ^ Abraham Lincoln's Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, June 26, 1857 Archived September 8, 2002, at the Wayback Machine.
  32. ^ "Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) Excerpts From Majority and Dissenting Opinions". Bill of Rights Institute.
  33. ^ "Digital History". Retrieved June 12, 2019.
  34. ^ "Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union Address".
  35. ^ Don E. Fehrenbacher (1978/2001), The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics, reprint, New York: Oxford, Part 3, "Consequences and Echoes", Chapter 18, "The Judges Judged", p. 441; unpublished opinion, transcript in Carl B. Swisher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
  36. ^ Finkleman, Paul (March 15, 1997). Dred Scott vs. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents – Google Boeken. ISBN 9780312128074.
  37. ^ a derogatory term for a black person
  38. ^ Address to the United States Senate on May 7, 1860, reprinted as Appendix F to Davis, Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1880).
  39. ^ Charles Calomiris and Larry Schweikart, "The Panic of 1857: Origins, Transmission, Containment", Journal of Economic History, LI, December 1990, pp. 807–34.
  40. ^ Speech to the United States Senate, May 7, 1860
  41. ^ Blassingame, John W. (September 15, 2008). Black New Orleans, 1860–1880. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226057095. Retrieved August 8, 2017 – via Google Books.
  42. ^ Lubet, Steven (June 1, 2013). "Execution in Virginia, 1859: The Trials of Green and Copeland". North Carolina Law Review. 91 (5).
  43. ^ Fehrenbacher, p. 580.
  44. ^ Hughes, Charles Evans (1936) [1928]. The Supreme Court of the United States. Columbia University Press. pp. 50–51. ISBN 978-0-231-08567-0.
  45. ^ "Introduction to the court opinion on the Dred Scott case". U.S. Department of State. Retrieved July 16, 2015. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  46. ^ "Remarks of the Chief Justice". Supreme Court of the United States. March 21, 2003. Retrieved November 22, 2007. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  47. ^ Rehnquist, William. "A Random Thought on the Segregation Cases" Archived 2008-09-21 at the Wayback Machine.
  48. ^ Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992). FindLaw.
  49. ^ Carey, Patrick W. (April 2002). "Political Atheism: Dred Scott, Roger Brooke Taney, and Orestes A. Brownson". The Catholic Historical Review. The Catholic University of America Press. 88 (2): 207–229. doi:10.1353/cat.2002.0072. ISSN 1534-0708. S2CID 153950640.
  50. ^ Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. (1992).
  51. ^ Arenson, Adam (2010), "Dred Scott versus the Dred Scott Case", The Dred Scott Case: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Race and Law, Ohio University Press, p. 36, ISBN 978-0821419120
  52. ^ Arenson (2010), p. 38
  53. ^ Arenson (2010), p. 39
  54. ^ Patrick, Robert (August 18, 2015). "St. Louis judges want sculpture to honor slaves who sought freedom here". Retrieved September 2, 2018. Attendees get their first look after the unveiling of the new Dred and Harriet Scott statue on the grounds of the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis on Friday, June 8, 2012.

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]