Dred Scott Decision: The Case and Its Impact

Dred Scott v. Sandford: Denied All Blacks US Citizenship

Map No 8, Status Of Slavery In The United States, 1775 - 1865
Color map, entitled 'Map No 8, Status of Slavery in the United States, 1775 - 1865,' illustrates the territorial application of various slavery related laws, published in 1898. Among the laws cited are the Missouri Compromise, the Dred Scott Decision, the Kansas Nebraska Act, and the Emancipation Proclamation.

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Dred Scott v. Sandford, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on March 6, 1857, declared that black people, whether free or slave, could not be American citizens and were thus constitutionally unable to sue for citizenship in the federal courts. The Court’s majority opinion also declared that the 1820 Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, and that the U.S. Congress could not prohibit slavery in the U.S. territories that had not attained statehood. The Dred Scott decision was eventually overturned by the 13th Amendment in 1865 and the 14th Amendment in 1868.

Fast Facts: Dred Scott v. Sandford

  • Case Argued: February 11–14, 1856; reargued December 15–18, 1856
  • Decision Issued: March 6, 1857
  • Petitioner: Dred Scott, a slave
  • Respondent: John Sanford, owner of Dred Scott
  • Key Question: Were slaves American citizens under the U.S. Constitution?
  • Majority Decision: Chief Justice Taney with Justices Wayne, Catron, Daniel, Nelson, Grier, and Campbell
  • Dissenting: Justices Curtis and McLean
  • Ruling: The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that slaves and their descendants, whether free or not, could not be American citizen and thus had no right to sue in federal court. The Court also ruled the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional and banned Congress from outlawing slavery in new U.S. territories.

Facts of the Case

Dred Scott, the plaintiff in the case, was a slave owned by John Emerson of Missouri. In 1843, Emerson took Scott from Missouri, a slave state, to the Louisiana Territory, where slavery had been banned by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. When Emerson later brought him back to Missouri, Scott sued for his freedom in a Missouri court, claiming that his temporary residency in the “free” Louisiana territory had automatically made him a free man. In 1850, the state court ruled that Scott was a free man, but in 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the decision.

When John Emerson’s widow left Missouri, she claimed to have sold Scott to John Sanford of New York State. (Due to a clerical error, “Sanford” is incorrectly spelled “Sandford” in the official Supreme Court documents.) Scott’s attorneys again sued for his freedom in a New York district U.S. federal court, which ruled in favor of Sanford. Still legally a slave, Scott then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Newspaper About Dred Scott Decision
A copy of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper has a front page story on the Supreme Court anti-abolitionist Dred Scott Decision of 1857. The story includes illustrations of Dred Scott and his family. Library of Congress / Getty Images

Constitutional Issues

In Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court faced two questions. First, were slaves and their descendants American citizens under the U.S. Constitution? Secondly, if slaves and their descendants were not American citizens, were they qualified to file suit in American courts in the context of Article III of the Constitution?

The Arguments 

The case of Dred Scott v. Sandford was first heard by the Supreme Court on February 11–14, 1856, and reargued on December 15–18, 1856. Dred Scott’s lawyers reiterated their earlier argument that because he and his family had resided in the Louisiana territory, Scott was legally free and was no longer a slave.

Lawyers for Sanford countered that the Constitution did not grant citizenship to slaves and that having been filed by a non-citizen, Scott’s case did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court

Majority Opinion

The Supreme Court announced its 7-2 decision against Dred Scott on March 6, 1857. In the Court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice Taney wrote that slaves “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 further wrote, “There are two clauses in the Constitution which point directly and specifically to the negro race as a separate class of persons, and show clearly that they were not regarded as a portion of the people or citizens of the Government then formed.”

Taney also cited state and local laws in effect when the Constitution was being drafted in 1787 he said demonstrated the framers’ intent to create a “perpetual and impassable barrier … be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery.” 

While admitting that slaves might be citizens of a state, Taney argued that state citizenship did not imply U.S. citizenship and that since they were not and could not be U.S. citizens, slaves could not file suit in federal courts. 

In addition, Taney wrote that as a non-citizen, all of Scott’s previous lawsuits also failed because he did not satisfy what Taney called the “diversity jurisdiction” of the Court implied by Article III of the Constitution for the federal courts to exercise jurisdiction over cases involving individuals and the states. 

While not part of the original case, the Court’s majority decision went on to overturn the entire Missouri Compromise and declared that the U.S. Congress had exceeded its constitutional powers in banning slavery. 

Joining Chief Justice Taney in the majority opinion were Justices James M. Wayne, John Catron, Peter V. Daniel, Samuel Nelson, Robert A. Grier, and John A. Campbell. 

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Benjamin R. Curtis and John McLean wrote dissenting opinions. 

Justice Curtis objected to the accuracy of the majority’s historical data, noting that black men were allowed to vote in five of the thirteen states of the Union at the time of the ratification of the Constitution. Justice Curtis wrote that this made black men citizens of both their states and of the United States. To argue that Scott was not an American citizen, Curtis wrote, was “more a matter of taste than of law.”

Also in dissent, Justice McLean argued that by ruling that Scott was not a citizen, the Court had also ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to hear his case. As a result, McLean contended that the Court must simply dismiss Scott’s case without passing judgment on its merits. Both Justices Curtis and McLean also wrote that the Court had overstepped its bounds in overturning the Missouri Compromise since it had not been part of the original case. 

The Impact

Coming at a time when a majority of the justices came from pro-slavery states, the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford was one of the most controversial and highly criticized in the Supreme Court’s history. Issued just two days after pro-slavery President James Buchanan took office, the Dred Scott decision fueled the growing national divisiveness that led to the Civil War.

Slavery supporters in the South celebrated the decision, while abolitionists in the North expressed outrage. Among those most vocally upset by the ruling was Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, then a rising star in the newly organized Republican Party. As the focal point of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, the Dred Scott case established the Republican Party as a national political force, deeply divided the Democratic Party, and contributed greatly to Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 presidential election

During the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments effectively overturned the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision by abolishing slavery, granting former slaves American citizenship, and ensuring them the same “equal protection of the laws” granted to all citizens by the Constitution. 

Sources and Further Reference