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Dred Scott v. Sandford

Dred Scott, Plff. In Er., V. John F.a. Sandford

The U.S. Supreme Court attempted to resolve the legal status of African Americans in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Chief Justice ROGER TANEY's belief that the Court could settle the issue proved mistaken, however. The decision heightened tensions and convinced abolitionists that the legal system was immoral.

Dred Scott was a slave owned by an army surgeon, John Emerson, who resided in Missouri. In 1836 Emerson took Scott to Fort Snelling, in what is now Minnesota, but then was a territory in which slavery had been expressly forbidden by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In 1846 Scott sued for his freedom in Missouri state court, arguing that his residence in a free territory had released him from slavery. The Missouri Supreme Court rejected his argument, and Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court heard arguments on Dred Scott in 1855 and 1856. The Court could have disposed of the case on narrower grounds by holding that Scott had not become free through his temporary stay with Emerson in free territory. Instead, Taney decided that the Court needed to address the broader issue of the status of slavery in the territories. He wrote a tortuous opinion, arguing that because of the attitudes toward slavery and African Americans that prevailed in 1787–1789, when the Constitution was drafted and ratified, a slave was not and never could become a federal citizen. In addition, Taney ruled that the free descendants of slaves were not federal citizens and that property in slaves was entitled to such protection that Congress could not constitutionally forbid slavery in the territories.

The immediate effect of the Dred Scott decision was to convince abolitionists that the South and the Supreme Court planned to impose slavery throughout the Union. With the start of the U.S. CIVIL WAR in 1861, it became clear that Taney's decision had failed in its essential purpose.

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