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Dred Scott v. Sandford

Further Readings

In Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393, 15 L. Ed. 691 (1857), the U.S. Supreme Court faced the divisive issue of SLAVERY. Chief Justice ROGER B. TANEY, a former slaveholder, authored the Court's opinion, holding that the U.S. Constitution permitted the unrestricted ownership of black slaves by white U.S. citizens. In a stunning 7–2 decision, the Court declared that slaves and emancipated blacks could not be full U.S. citizens. Any attempt by Congress to limit the spread of slavery in U.S. territories was held to be a direct violation of slave owners' due process rights.

Chief Justice Taney's opinion fueled the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement and helped push the United States toward civil war. Although Taney was an accomplished jurist who served as chief justice for 29 years, his record was permanently tarnished by what many considered to be his flawed reasoning in the Dred Scott case.

Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1857, claiming that his residence with his owner in a free state and free territories entitled him to liberty. The Supreme Court ruled against Scott, sparking outrage among abolitionists.

African slavery was introduced in the American colonies in 1619. As the new country grew, slavery spread throughout the South, where cheap labor was needed for harvesting large cotton and tobacco crops. During the early nineteenth century, opponents of slavery began to organize in the North.

Abolitionists initially wanted to restrict slavery to the southern states, but their ultimate goal was to outlaw black servitude throughout the United States. As new territories from the LOUISIANA PURCHASE applied for U.S. state-hood, the issue became a sticking point. Most southerners supported the spread of slavery, viewing it as a necessary condition for their social, political, and economic survival. Most northerners favored the containment and eventual eradication of slavery. Although political moderates called for voters in each new territory to resolve the slavery issue, a national consensus on this point was never reached.

The 1820 Missouri Compromise was an attempt by the U.S. Congress to balance the competing viewpoints. Congress passed a law designating as free states any new states located north of a line drawn across the Louisiana Purchase. New states south of the line would be slave states. In other words, slavery was outlawed north of Missouri's border and west to the Rocky Mountains. After the passage of the Missouri Compromise, two new states were admitted: Missouri, where slavery was permitted, and Maine, where it was forbidden.

The Missouri Compromise did not improve the bitter rivalry between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. The controversial Dred Scott opinion further exacerbated regional tensions.

Dred Scott was a slave owned by Dr. John Emerson, a U.S. Army officer. In 1834, Scott moved with Emerson from Missouri, a slave state, to Illinois, a state in which slavery was prohibited by statute. Scott and Emerson also lived in northern U.S. territories that later became the free states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. In 1838, Scott and his family returned to Missouri with Emerson.

When Emerson died, Scott sued Emerson's widow in Missouri state court, seeking freedom for himself and his family. Scott's 1846 lawsuit claimed that his prior residence in a free state and free territories entitled him to liberty and back wages since 1834.

Scott won his case in the lower court. Emerson's widow appealed to the state supreme court, which sided with her. Then, she married Calvin Clifford Chafee, a prominent Massachusetts abolitionist and member of Congress. The new Mrs. Chafee switched to the abolitionist camp and agreed to seek a federal ruling against slavery on Scott's behalf.

Scott was sold in a sham transaction to Mrs. Chafee's brother, John F. A. Sanford, an abolitionist from New York. Sanford agreed to participate in the Dred Scott case as a personal protest against slavery. (Mr. Sanford's name was misspelled by a clerk in the case title as "Sandford" and has remained so in court records.)

Scott filed a lawsuit against his new owner in federal court. A federal court was able to hear the case because of diversity of jurisdiction, which entitles litigants from two different states (in this case, Missouri and New York) to pursue claims in federal court.

Like the state lawsuit, the federal case claimed that Scott was no longer a slave, owing to his previous residence in a free state and free territory. The federal court ruled against Scott, who then brought his case before the U.S. Supreme Court in a writ of error—an order from an appeals court requiring a trial court to send records to the U.S. Supreme Court for review.

The Supreme Court conducted a four-day hearing. Chief Justice Taney delivered what he hoped would be the definitive statement on slavery in the United States. Taney, a respected Maryland lawyer and former U.S. attorney general, had succeeded the legendary JOHN MARSHALL as chief justice. He used Dred Scott as a national forum on constitutional rights and race.

Chief Justice Taney's colleague, Associate Justice SAMUEL NELSON, urged the Court to reach a narrow decision based on the facts in Dred Scott. Because Scott's original action was brought in a Missouri court, Nelson believed simply that state law should prevail in the case. Under Missouri law, a slave's status was not affected by a temporary change in residence.

Chief Justice Taney did not want Scott defeated in a narrow holding. Instead, he wrote a sweeping defense of slavery, emphasizing the slave owners' constitutional rights and privileges. Taney observed that under the DUE PROCESS CLAUSE of the FIFTH AMENDMENT of the U.S. Constitution, no person can be deprived of property without legal proceedings. By outlawing slavery in certain U.S. territories, the Missouri Compromise stripped slave owners of their constitutional right to own property, or "articles of merchandise," as Taney referred to slaves. Taney found the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. (Actually, the Missouri Compromise had been repealed by Congress in 1854, but Taney's ruling nevertheless worried abolitionists, who feared that Taney's findings could be applied to any federal legislation that restricted slavery.) Thus, the Scott decision both sanctioned slavery and encouraged its spread throughout all U.S. territories.

Taney's opinion also declared that black slaves and their descendants could not become U.S. citizens. Because blacks were ineligible for citizenship, they could not sue in federal court. Taney claimed that the architects of the U.S. Constitution did not intend for blacks to have constitutionally protected rights and immunities. The Founding Fathers had regarded blacks as socially and politically unfit. Taney observed that even if Scott were free, he could not appear before federal court, because of his race. However, Taney determined that Scott was not free, because his brief residence in a free state did not divest him of slave status.

President JAMES BUCHANAN hoped that the Supreme Court's unequivocal ruling in Scott would dispose of the slavery issue once and for all. The opinion had the opposite effect. Outrage among abolitionists and fence-sitters was deep. The nascent REPUBLICAN PARTY benefited from Scott, as new members joined in the wake of the pro-slavery ruling. The Republican party denounced the Scott decision, calling for measures to restrict slavery. Presidential candidate ABRAHAM LINCOLN used the case as a campaign issue and pledged to overturn the Court's ruling against Scott. Lincoln won the presidential election in 1860, and in 1861, the Civil War began.

After the unfortunate ruling, Scott was freed by Sanford and worked as a porter in a St. Louis hotel. He died of tuberculosis in 1858 or 1859. Sanford was institutionalized for mental illness, a condition his friends traced to his public involvement in the Scott fiasco.

The Supreme Court's reputation suffered greatly owing to its poor handling of the slavery issue. Newspaper editors and politicians lambasted the Court for its colossal misstep. Historians single out Taney's Dred Scott decision as one of the lowest points in U.S. JURISPRUDENCE.

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