Dred Scott v. Sandford

Scott v. Sandford

Supreme Court of the United States

Decided March 5, 1857
Full case name: Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford1
Citations: 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393; 15 L. Ed. 691; 1856 U.S. LEXIS 472
Prior history: Judgment for defendants, Circuit Court for the District of Missouri
Subsequent history: none
Blacks, whether slaves or free, could not become United States citizens and the plaintiff therefore lacked the capacity to file a lawsuit. The plaintiff did not become free after traveling through territory in which slavery was prohibited, because this would deprive his owner of his right to property. Judgment of Circuit Court for the District of Missouri reversed and dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
Court membership
Chief Justice: Roger B. Taney
Associate Justices: John McLean, James Moore Wayne, John Catron, Peter Vivian Daniel, Samuel Nelson, Robert C. Grier, Benjamin R. Curtis, John A. Campbell
Case opinions
Majority by: Taney
Joined by: Wayne, Grier, Daniel, Campbell, Catron (each also writing separate concurrences)
Concurrence by: Nelson
Dissent by: Curtis
Dissent by: McLean
Laws applied
U.S. Const. Amend. V; Missouri Compromise
Superseded by:
U.S. Const. Amend. XIII, XIV

Dred Scott v. Sandford1, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857), known as the "Dred Scott Case", was a lawsuit decided by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1857. It is considered by many to have been a key cause of the American Civil War, and of the later ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, leading to the abolition of slavery and establishment of civil rights for freed slaves. The decision for the court was written by Chief Justice Roger Taney.

Dred Scott was an American slave who was taken first to Illinois, a free state, and then to Minnesota, a free territory, for an extended period of time and then back to the slave state of Missouri. After his original master died, he sued for his freedom. He initially won his freedom from a Missouri lower court, but the decision was reversed by the Missouri Supreme Court and remanded back to the trial court. Simultaneously, Scott had filed suit in federal court, where, after prevailing on the issue of his status as citizen as Missouri, he lost a trial by jury. Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which used the case to fundamentally change the legal balance of power in favor of slaveholders.

The Court ruled that:



Dred Scott was a slave purchased around 1833 by Dr. John Emerson, a surgeon in the US Army, from John Blow, who had owned Scott perhaps since his birth around 1800, but at least since 1818. Emerson served for over two years at Fort Armstrong, Illinois. Illinois was at the time a free state, and Scott was eligible to be freed under its constitution. In 1836, Emerson was relocated to Minnesota, then a free territory under the Missouri Compromise and the Wisconsin Enabling Act. During this time, Scott met and married the slave Harriet Robinson; marriage, a legally binding contract, was not open to slaves in the South.

In October 1837, Emerson was transferred to St. Louis, Missouri, but left Scott and Scott's wife behind for a number of months, hiring them out. Hiring out Scott constituted slavery, and was clearly illegal under the Missouri Compromise, the Wisconsin Enabling Act, and the Northwest Ordinance.

In November 1837, Emerson was again transferred to Fort Jessup, Louisiana. The following February, he married Irene Marie Sanford, and finally sent for Scott and his wife from Minnesota. The Scotts followed Emerson and his family, first to St. Louis and then to Fort Snelling, where they remained until May 1840. During the trip, in what were waters bordering free territories, Eliza Scott, the first child of Dred Scott, was born. In May 1840, Emerson was sent to fight in the Seminole War in Florida, and left his wife and slaves behind in St. Louis. After his return, he moved to the free territory of Iowa, but left Scott and his wife behind in St. Louis, again hiring them out.

In December 1843, Emerson died unexpectedly at the age of forty. Scott and his family worked as hired slaves for the next three years, with Irene Emerson taking in the rent. In February 1846, Scott tried to purchase his freedom from Irene Emerson, but she refused. In April 1846, he sued for his freedom.

The case

Missouri court history

The first case Scott brought was lost on a technicality: Scott could not prove to the court that Emerson indeed owned him and his family. A judge ordered a second trial in December 1847; Emerson appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which sided with Scott in June 1848. A new trial did not begin until January 1850, and the jury sided with Scott and his family. Emerson appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Irene Emerson turned the responsibility of the case over to her brother, John F. A. Sanford of New York, who acted on her behalf. Though 28 years of Missouri legal precedent held that Scott should have been freed, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision, holding that Scott was still a slave.

Federal court history

The suit

Scott was forced to get new lawyers due to the death of his previous one, then filed suit in Federal Circuit Court. This case was brought against John Sanford, who defended the suit because of the monetary interest; since the beginning of the very first trials, Scott and his family, in the custody of the St. Louis County Sheriff, had been rented out and the not inconsiderable proceeds were held in escrow for the ultimate winner of the case.

Scott at this time received support from the family of his first owner, John Blow. Charles Edmund LaBeaume, a brother-in-law of Peter Blow, was in fact renting the Scotts, and helped Scott sue for his freedom in federal court.

Scott sued Sanford in US Circuit Court for battery and wrongful imprisonment, and asked for nine thousand dollars in damages. The point of the trial was less the case itself, than an attempt to get the court to recognize Scott's freedom. Sanford, who was controlling Scott, would have been committing wrongful imprisonment if Scott were indeed free, which is why the case was brought against Sanford, rather than Scott's actual owner, Irene Emerson.

Federal jurisdiction issues

Federal district judge Robert W. Wells first had to determine whether he had jurisdiction to hear the case. Scott argued "in diversity", an aspect of federal jurisdiction that allows citizens of different states to sue each other in federal court in some circumstances. Scott claimed that he was a citizen of Missouri and the defendant was a citizen of New York. Sanford disagreed in a "plea of abatement", claiming that Scott, because he was black, could not be a citizen of Missouri and that the federal court had no jurisdiction.

Wells rejected the plea of abatement, accepting that, even if Scott did not have full legal or political rights, he had the ability to bring suit in federal court. The case thus went to trial.

The trial

Sanford admitted he had "gently laid his hands upon" Scott and his family, thus admitting to the accusations brought against him, but claimed he had the ability to do so because Scott was legally his property. The case went to trial in May 1854, with Judge Wells ordering the jury to determine Scott's status by Missouri law; Scott's status as a slave having already been decided by the Missouri Supreme Court, and the Scotts never having availed themselves of their prior ability to declare themselves free in Illinois, Sanford won the case.

The Supreme Court case

Players and the arguments

Though the Blows could no longer afford to support Scott in a legal battle in front of the Supreme Court, Montgomery Blair, a Washington-area lawyer with strong ties to Missouri, took the case for free. Sanford retained US Senator Henry S. Geyer of Missouri and Maryland politician Reverdy Johnson. Blair received little support from the anti-slavery movement, indicating few expected the eventual outcome of the case.

Scott appealed to the Supreme Court in December 1854, arguing that Judge Wells erred in charging the jury that Scott was not entitled to freedom. The Supreme Court held the case for the December 1855 term and heard arguments in February 1856.

The Court gave four days to the parties to hear oral argument in the case — not that unusual an event in the nineteenth century, during which the Supreme Court often heard arguments lasting one or two days. The advocates focused on the questions whether blacks could be citizens of the United States, whether Congress could outlaw slavery in the territories, and whether the Missouri Compromise was constitutional. The court in May postponed a decision for a year, scheduling re-argument on two questions:

  1. Had the Circuit Court of the United States jurisdiction to hear and determine the case between these parties? and
  2. If it had jurisdiction, was the judgment it has given erroneous?

One year later, in December 1856, the court heard argument on these issues and the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise. The case was now starting to gain public attention, and the constitutional lawyer George T. Curtis, brother of Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis, joined in the argument on Scott's side.

Correspondence with President Buchanan

After the November vote, President-elect Buchanan wrote to his friend, Supreme Court Justice John Catron, asking whether the case would be decided before his inauguration in March. Buchanan hoped the decision would quell unrest in the country over the slavery issue by issuing a decision that put the future of slavery beyond the realm of political debate.

Buchanan later pressured Justice Grier, a Northerner, to join the Southern majority to prevent the appearance that the decision was made along sectional lines. By present-day standards, any such correspondence would be considered improper ex parte contact with a court; even under the more lenient standards of that century, political pressure applied on a member of a sitting court would have been seen as improper.

The decision

The ruling was handed down on March 6, 1857. Chief Justice Taney delivered the opinion of the Court, while each of the justices joining in or dissenting from the decision filed separate opinions. In total, six justices agreed with the ruling, while Samuel Nelson concurred with the ruling but not its reasoning, and Curtis and John McLean dissented.

The Court first held that Scott was not a "citizen" within the meaning of the United States Constitution as that term was understood at the time the Constitution was adopted and therefore not able to bring suit in federal court. According to the Court, the drafters of the Constitution had viewed all African-Americans as "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Taney's statement was, as Justice Curtis pointed out in his dissent, demonstrably false, as many free African-Americans were citizens of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina at the time of the drafting of the Constitution and voted for its ratification.

The Court also presented a parade of horribles, describing the feared results of granting Mr. Scott's petition: "It would give to persons of the negro race, ... the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, ... the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went."

The Court went on to hold that Scott was not a free man, even though he had resided for a time in Minnesota, because the provisions of the Missouri Compromise declaring it to be free territory were beyond Congress's power to enact. The Court rested its decision on two grounds: first, that Congress had only limited powers to legislate for the territories and second, that the Fifth Amendment barred any law that would deprive a slaveholder of his property, i.e., his slaves, because he had brought them into a free territory. The Court went on to state — although the issue was not before the Court — that the territorial legislatures had no power to bar slavery.

This was only the second time that the Supreme Court had found an act of Congress to be unconstitutional. Curtis, in dissent, attacked that part of the Court's decision as obiter dicta, on the ground that once the Court determined that it did not have jurisdiction to hear Scott's case its only recourse was to dismiss the action, not to pass judgment on the merits of his claims. The dissents by Curtis and McLean also attacked the Court's overturning of the Missouri Compromise on its merits, noting that none of the Framers of the Constitution had ever objected on constitutional grounds to the United States Congress' adoption of the antislavery provisions of the Northwest Ordinance passed by the Continental Congress, or the subsequent acts that barred slavery north of 3630′.

The consequences

Taney and others had hoped that a Supreme Court decision allowing the unhindered expansion of slavery into the territories would settle the question once and for all. The decision was an audacious one, addressing the core issues of slavery and Negro citizenship, which it could have avoided deciding on the ground that Missouri law alone applied to the case.

In fact, the decision produced the opposite result by strengthening the opposition to slavery in the North, dividing the Democratic Party on sectional lines, and encouraging secessionist elements among Southern supporters of slavery to make even bolder demands.

The reaction to the decision from opponents of slavery was fierce. The Albany Evening Journal combined two themes in denouncing the decision as both an offense to the principles of liberty on which the nation was founded and a victory for the Slave Power over the free states:

The three hundred and forty-seven thousand five hundred and twenty-five Slaveholders in the Republic, accomplished day before yesterday a great success — as shallow men estimate success. They converted the Supreme Court of Law and Equity of the United States of America into a propagandist of human Slavery. Fatal day for a judiciary made reputable throughout the world, and reliable to all in this nation, by the learning and the virtues of Jay, Rutledge, Ellsworth, Marshall and Story!
The conspiracy is nearly completed. The Legislation of the Republic is in the hands of this handfull of Slaveholders. The United States Senate assures it to them. The Executive power of the Government is theirs. Buchanan took the oath of fealty to them on the steps of the Capitol last Wednesday. The body which gives the supreme law of the land, has just acceded to their demands, and dared to declare that under the charter of the Nation, men of African descent are not citizens of the United States and can not be — that the Ordinance of 1787 was void — that human Slavery is not a local thing, but pursues its victims to free soil, clings to them wherever they go, and returns with them — that the American Congress has no power to prevent the enslavement of men in the National Territories — that the inhabitants themselves of the Territories have no power to exclude human bondage from their midst — and that men of color can not be suitors for justice in the Courts of the United States!

That editorial ended on a martial note:

... All who love Republican institutions and who hate Aristocracy, compact yourselves together for the struggle which threatens your liberty and will test your manhood!

Many abolitionists and some supporters of slavery believed that Taney was prepared to rule, as soon as the issue was presented in a subsequent case, that the states had no power to prohibit slavery within their borders and that state laws providing for the emancipation of slaves brought into their territory or forbidding the institution of slavery were likewise unconstitutional. Abraham Lincoln stressed this danger during the Lincoln–Douglas Debates in his speech at Springfield, Illinois, on June 17 1858:

Put this and that together, and we have another nice little niche, which we may, ere long, see filled with another Supreme Court decision, declaring that the Constitution of the United States does not permit a State to exclude slavery from its limits. [...] We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free, and we shall awake to the reality instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.

That fear of the "next" Dred Scott decision shocked many in the North who had been content to accept slavery as long as it was confined within its present borders.

It also put the Northern Democrats, such as Stephen Douglas, in a difficult position. The Northern wing of the Democratic Party had supported the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 under the banner of "popular sovereignty," arguing that even if Congress did not bar the expansion of slavery into those territories, the residents of those territories could prohibit it by territorial legislation. The Dred Scott decision squarely stated that they could not – even though, strictly speaking, that issue was not before the Court.

Douglas attempted to overcome that obstacle, without challenging the Court's decision directly, by his Freeport Doctrine. Douglas insisted that, even if a territory could not bar slavery outright, the institution could not take root without local police regulations to protect it.

While this doctrine may have allayed Northern Democrats' fears, it was wholly unacceptable to Southern Democrats, who reached a different conclusion from the same premise. As they argued, if hostile territorial governments could obstruct their right to bring their slaves into a territory by refusing to protect that right, then Congress must intervene to pass a federal slave code for all the territories. They often coupled this with threats to secede if Congress did not comply.

At the same time Democrats characterized Republicans as lawless rebels, provoking disunion by their unwillingness to accept the Supreme Court's decision as the law of the land. Many Northern opponents of slavery had offered a legalistic argument for refusing to recognize the Dred Scott decision as binding. As they noted, the Court's decision began with the proposition that the federal courts did not have jurisdiction to hear Scott's case because he was not a citizen of the State of Missouri. Therefore, so the opponents argued, the remainder of the decision concerning the Missouri Compromise was unnecessary, beyond the Court's power to decide and invalid. Douglas attacked this position in the Lincoln–Douglas debates:

Mr. Lincoln goes for a warfare upon the Supreme Court of the United States, because of their judicial decision in the Dred Scott case. I yield obedience to the decisions in that court—to the final determination of the highest judicial tribunal known to our constitution.

Southern supporters of slavery went further, claiming that the decision was essential to the preservation of the union. As the Richmond Enquirer stated:

Thus has a politico-legal question, involving others of deep import, been decided emphatically in favor of the advocates and supporters of the Constitution and the Union, the equality of the States and the rights of the South, in contradistinction to and in repudiation of the diabolical doctrines inculcated by factionists and fanatics; and that too by a tribunal of jurists, as learned, impartial and unprejudiced as perhaps the world has ever seen. A prize, for which the athletes of the nation have often wrestled in the halls of Congress, has been awarded at last, by the proper umpire, to those who have justly won it. The "nation" has achieved a triumph, "sectionalism" has been rebuked, and abolitionism has been staggered and stunned. Another supporting pillar has been added to our institutions; the assailants of the South and enemies of the Union have been driven from their "point d'appui"; a patriotic principle has been pronounced; a great, national, conservative, union saving sentiment has been proclaimed.

But while some supporters of slavery treated the decision as a vindication of their rights within the union, others treated it as merely a step to spreading slavery throughout the nation, as the Republicans claimed. Convinced that any restrictions on their right to own slaves and to take them anywhere they chose were unlawful, they boasted that the coming decade would see slave auctions in Boston Commons. These Southern radicals were ready to split the Democratic Party and — as events showed — the nation on that principle.

Scott's fate

The sons of Peter Barlow, Scott's first owner, purchased emancipation for Scott and his family on May 26 1857. Scott died a little over a year later, on September 17 1858.

Later references to the case

Charles Evans Hughes, writing on the history of the Supreme Court in 1927, before his appointment as Chief Justice, described the Dred Scott case as a "self-inflicted wound" from which it took the Court at least a generation to recover. Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer both echoed that comment in their dissents in Bush v. Gore, in which they similarly described the majority's intervention in the Florida recount as a self-inflicted wound.

For some in the pro-life (anti-abortion rights) movement, Roe v. Wade has taken on a significance similar to the Dred Scott decision. To these thinkers, the two cases are similar both in specifics, in that they both unjustly removed constitutional protections from a class of persons (blacks in Dred Scott, fetuses in Roe), and in general, in that they represented illegitimate meddling by the Court in political matters.

This analogy was an esoteric one until President George W. Bush replied to a question during the second 2004 Presidential debate about possible appointments to the United States Supreme Court by saying that he would not pick the type of judge who would support the Dred Scott decision. The comment puzzled many observers, since that case dealt with the issue of slavery, abolished in the United States almost a century and a half previously; some commentators thought that Bush's reply was a rather strange bit of historical minutia. However, others felt that the statement allowed Bush to send a message to dedicated pro-life voters, who would understand it as a veiled attack on Roe v. Wade, without explicitly calling for an overturning of the decision, which might alienate others.

Sources and further reading

  1. "Dred Scott Case." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001. [1] (http://www.bartleby.com/65/dr/DredScot.html)
  2. Fehrenbacher, Don Edward. The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics. Oxford University Press: 2001. ISBN 0195145887.
  3. Fehrenbacher, Don Edward. Slavery, Law, and Politics: The Dred Scott Case in Historical Perspective. Oxford University Press: 1981. ISBN 019502883X.
  4. Finkelman, Paul. "Dred Scott Case." Encarta Online. [2] (http://encarta.msn.com/text_761560456___0/Dred_Scott_Case.html)
  5. Finkelman, Paul. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents. Bedford Books: 1997. ISBN 031212807X.
  6. Hall, Kermit L. The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions. Oxford University Press: 1999. ISBN 0195118839.
  7. Kaufman, Kenneth C. Dred Scott's Advocate: A Biography of Roswell M. Field. University of Missouri Press: 1996. ISBN 0826210929.

External links


Note 1: While the name of the case is "Scott v. Sandford", the respondent's surname was actually "Sanford". A clerk had misspelled the name, and the court never corrected the error.

fr:Scott v. Sandford


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