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Scott v. Sandford

Victory For Slavery, Defeat For Scott

The Scott case was filed with the Supreme Court on 30 December 1854, and set for oral argument on the Court's February 1856 Term. The political makeup of the Court weighed heavily in its eventual decision. Southern and pro-slavery justices had a clear majority. Campbell was from Alabama. Catron was from Tennessee. Curtis was from Massachusetts, but was sympathetic to the South. Daniel was from Virginia. Grier was from Pennsylvania, but he was a conservative states' rights advocate. McLean, from Ohio, was the only openly anti-slavery justice on the Court. Nelson was from New York, but like Grier he was a defender of states' rights and lukewarm to the anti-slavery cause. Taney, the chief justice, was from Maryland and the leader of the Court's Southern majority. Finally, Wayne was from Georgia. The justices also were conscious of the fact that 1856 was an election year, and that the Scott decision would have important political consequences.

During the 1856 February Term, the justices listened to the parties' arguments for three days. Scott's attorneys presented the "free soil" argument, one favored by Northern abolitionists: once a slave stepped into a free state or territory, he or she was emancipated, or else the power to prohibit slavery was meaningless. Sanford's attorneys presented the states' rights argument, which favored the institution of slavery: Scott had been a slave in Missouri, he had returned to Missouri, and had subjected himself to the jurisdiction of Missouri law and Missouri courts. Therefore, Missouri was entitled to declare Scott a slave, and ignore the fact that Scott would not be a slave elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, most of the justices were in favor of rejecting Scott's freedom plea. However, they could not agree on the proper legal grounds. Some justices wanted to hold that a slave could not sue in federal court, other justices wanted to discuss congressional power to prohibit slavery in the territories and the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise. The justices decided to postpone their decision until after the presidential election and ordered Scott's and Sanford's lawyers to re-argue the case during the Court's 1856 December Term.

In November of 1856, Democrat James Buchanan was elected president. Buchanan, indifferent to the slavery issue, would sit idly by over the next four years while the country was split into North and South and headed toward the Civil War. After the second round of oral argument in December, during which the parties reiterated the same basic positions, Chief Justice Taney announced the majority of the Court. Taney and six other justices voted to hold that Scott was still a slave. Taney refused to recognize any rights for blacks as citizens under the U.S. Constitution:

We think they are not, and that they 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 the citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time 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.

From this holding, Taney went on to state that Scott was a slave wherever he went, and could be reclaimed at any time by his lawful owner under that provision of the Constitution that forbids Congress from depriving Americans of life, liberty, and property without due process of law. Taney held that Scott was "property" and therefore the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional:

An Act of Congress which deprives a citizen of the United States of his property, merely because he came himself or brought his property into a particular Territory of the United States, and who had committed no offense against the laws, could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law.

Scott was a slave once again, and the South had won an important victory. The Missouri Compromise, which had preserved the political status quo for nearly 40 years, was swept away. The North would eventually prevail and abolish slavery, but it would do so only after many battles of a much different and bloodier nature during the Civil War.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Scott v. Sandford - Significance, Scott Sues For Freedom, Scott Tries Federal Courts, Victory For Slavery, Defeat For Scott