Dred Scott v. Sandford*

60 U.S. 393 (1857)

"The Court, in trying this case, is itself on trial." — New York Courier

Case Summary

In 1820 the U. S. Congress passed the Missouri Compromise which admitted Maine to the Union as a free state, Missouri as a slave state, and made Missouri's southern border, the 36 degrees 30 minutes parallel, the boundary north of which slavery would not be allowed within the Louisiana Purchase. Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century. In 1830, his owner moved to Missouri (a slave state) and brought Dred Scott with him. In 1833 Scott was sold to an army surgeon, Dr. John Emerson, who later moved first to Illinois (a free state) and then to Wisconsin Territory, and both times he took Dred Scott with him. Emerson returned with Scott to Missouri in 1838. Scott thus had been held as a slave in a free state and then in an area where slavery was outlawed by the Missouri Compromise. Emerson died in 1843 and in his will left Scott to his widow, the former Irene Sanford whose brother was the executor of Emerson's will. In 1846, Dred Scott and his wife Harriet filed a petition in a Missouri court requesting permission to file suit in order to establish their right to be freed since they had resided on free soil. After two trials and the Scotts temporarily winning their freedom, the Missouri Supreme Court in 1852 reversed the lower court's verdict and held that it would not enforce the antislavery laws of other states and that the Scotts' residence on free soil had not changed their status as slaves. The Scotts then brought suit in a U.S. Circuit Court where the verdict once more was that they were still slaves. The case was now appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court where it was argued in early 1856 and then reargued in late 1856.

Legal Issue

The Court considered the following questions:

  1. Is a slave a citizen and thus able to bring suit in a federal court?
  2. Is a slave who has resided on free soil therefore freed?
  3. Did the U. S. Congress have the power to outlaw slavery in new states or in a territory?


Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the full opinion of the court.

Seven Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that Dred Scott and his wife remained slaves, while two felt that husband and wife were legally entitled to their freedom. Except for one Justice in the majority who was simply content with a brief note that he concurred with the thinking of the majority, each of the other six Justices in the majority felt compelled to write separate opinions.

Chief Justice Roger Taney, however, wrote the most important opinion for the majority. Taney initially addressed the question of whether Dred Scott was a citizen and therefore entitled to bring suit in a federal court: "The question is simply this: can a Negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen. One of these rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States … The words 'people of the United States' and 'citizens' are synonymous terms, and mean the same thing." Taney then writes that the question the Court must answer is whether the Scotts are a part of "the people." The answer, he states, is: "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 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."

Taney next turned to the question of whether Dred Scott remained a slave after residing on free soil. Relative to this question, Taney wrote: "… it is the opinion of the court that the Act of Congress which prohibited a citizen from holding and owning property of this kind in the territory of the United States north of the line therein mentioned, is not warranted by the Constitution, and is therefore void; and that neither Dred Scott himself, nor any of his family, were made free by being carried into this territory; even if they had been carried there by the owner, with the intention of becoming a permanent resident …" Furthermore, Taney asserted, because "Scott was a slave when taken into the state of Illinois by his owner, and was there held as such, and brought back in that character, his status, as free or slave depended on the laws of Missouri, and not of Illinois."



For Teachers

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Case Notes

*Sanford's name was misspelled in the official Supreme Court records.
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