Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

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The U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the Court ruled that African Americans, whether enslaved or free, were not citizens of the United States and therefore did not have the right to sue in federal court. In so holding, the Court also ruled that the federal government could not prohibit slavery in the territories. The decision was a prime factor leading to the Civil War, but the Fourteenth Amendment—which provides that anyone born or naturalized in the United States is a citizen of the nation and of his or her state—eventually rendered the case moot.

Dred Scott was an African American man who was born a slave in the late 1700s. In 1832, Scott’s owner, Emerson, took him into the Wisconsin territory, which outlawed slavery, to do various tasks. While there, Emerson allowed Scott to get married, and left Scott and his wife in Wisconsin when Emerson traveled to Louisiana. Emerson died in 1843, and Scott attempted to purchase his freedom from Emerson’s widow, but she refused. Scott then sued in federal court against Sandford, the executor of Emerson’s estate for his freedom. He argued that, since he became a permanent resident in the federal territory of Wisconsin, which prohibited slavery, he became a freeman. The district court applied the laws of Missouri to find Scott was still a slave, and the Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. 

The Supreme Court, in a contentious opinion written by Chief Justice Taney, held that persons of African descent were not citizens of the United States. The Court reasoned that, at the time of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, persons of African descent were brought to the U.S. as property, and, whether later freed or not, could not become U.S. citizens. Even though many states granted citizenship to African Americans, the Court distinguished state citizenship from federal citizenship, and found the later precluded to African Americans because of whom the Court believed the founders meant to include in the original Constitution. Native Americans, on the other hand, were considered free and independent residents of North America at the time of the founding, so they could be federal citizens of the United States. As this applied to Dred Scott, he could not sue for his freedom from his time spent in the (at the time) federal territory of Wisconsin because, as the Court interpreted the Constitution, African Americans could simply not become federal citizens. However, as horrifying as this opinion is for Scott, he fortunately eventually became a freeman when Emerson’s widow had a change of heart after marrying an abolitionist.

The aftermath of this case is seen to have inflamed the tensions between abolitionists and southerners. Previously, the Missouri Compromise tenuously kept the nation together by keeping federal territories north of Missouri freed. However, after this opinion, that was meaningless since slaveholders could bring their slaves into nominally free federal territory and not worry about the free status of that territory impacting their ownership over their slaves.

Commentators nearly unanimously agree that this case was a blemish on the history of the High Court. Robert Burt, writing in Washington and Lee Law Review, states that “[n]o Supreme Court decision has been more consistently reviled than Dred Scott v. Sandford,” and that “of all the repudiated decisions [by the Supreme Court], Dred Scott carries the deepest stigma.” He points out that Taney’s opinion is the most “explicit racist dogma” in the history of the Supreme Court, and was not even accurate in interpreting the founders’ inconsistent views on how African Americans fit into the new national framework. Another contemporary and widely shared criticism is the amount that Chief Justice Taney inserts his personal opinion—i.e. racism—into the holding opinion. Sanford Levinson, writing in Harvard Law Review Forum, states that Dred Scott has become synonymous with the general public with . . . ‘judges on a rampage.’” 

After the Civil War, however, the Fourteenth Amendment rendered Chief Justice Taney’s entire opinion obsolete, in declaring that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens of the United States.” Thus, while hastening the coming of the Civil War and serving as an example of the blatant infusion of racism in 19th century jurisprudence, its effect was largely superseded by the Fourteenth Amendment.

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[Last updated in November of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]