Old Courthouse plaque of Dred and Harriet Scott
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Introduction

In March 1857, in one of the most controversial events preceding the American Civil War (1861-65), the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford. The case had been brought before the court by Dred Scott, a slave who had lived with his owner in a free state before returning to the slave state of Missouri. Scott argued that his time spent in these locations entitled him to emancipation. In his decision, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a staunch supporter of slavery, disagreed: The court found that no black, free or slave, could claim U.S. citizenship, and therefore blacks were unable to petition the court for their freedom. The Dred Scott decision incensed abolitionists and heightened North-South tensions, which would erupt in war just three years later

This convoluted case (1857), both a cause and an effect of sectional conflict, contributed to antebellum political and constitutional controversy. It also made Chief Justice Roger B. Taney seem a satanic figure to contemporary antislavery activists and many later historians.

Dred Scott, a black slave, and his wife had once belonged to army surgeon John Emerson, who had bought him from the Peter Blow family of St. Louis. After Emerson died, the Blows apparently helped Scott sue Emerson’s widow for his freedom, but lost the case in state court. Because Mrs. Emerson left him with her brother John Sanford (misspelled Sandford in court papers), a New York citizen, Scott sued again in federal court, claiming Missouri citizenship. Scott’s lawyers eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Originally, Justice Samuel Nelson was to write a narrow opinion, arguing that the case belonged in the state, not a federal court. But northern antislavery justices John McLean of Ohio and Benjamin R. Curtis of Massachusetts planned to dissent, arguing that Scott should be freed under the Missouri Compromise because he had traveled north of the 36°30′ line, whereas the Court’s southerners wanted to rule the compromise unconstitutional. Among several opinions, Taney’s was both the most important and the most tortuous. He ruled that blacks, slave or free, could not be citizens (Curtis showed this to be counter to precedent). Nor could Scott have become free by traveling north of the Missouri Compromise line; slavery, Taney said, could not be banned in the territories. Six justices agreed that Scott was not a citizen, but disagreed over whether a freed slave could become a citizen. Nelson concurred in the ruling but not in its reasoning, and McLean and Curtis dissented.

Republicans assailed the decision, which they saw as an attempt to destroy their nascent party. Democrats divided over the Dred Scott case. Stephen A. Douglas ended up opposing it as counter to his doctrine of popular sovereignty. President James Buchanan’s supporters considered it a final answer to the sectional controversy, although they were unaware at the time that Buchanan had influenced Justice Robert Grier of Pennsylvania to join the southern majority so that it would look less like a sectional decision. The Dred Scott case remained the subject of noisy constitutional and historical debate and contributed to the divisions that helped lead to Abraham Lincoln’s election and the Civil War.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.