on the road to secession. Dred Scott was a slave who was taken to Missouri from Virginia
and sold. His new master then moved to Illinois (a free state) for a while but soon moved
back to Missouri. Upon his master’s death, Scott claimed that since he had resided in a free
state, he was consequentially a free man. The case eventually made it to the Supreme
As stated by Supreme Court Justice C. J. Taney, “In considering this…controversy, two
questions arise: 1st.[sic] Was [Scott], together with his family, free in Missouri by reason
of his stay in the territory of the United States hereinbefore mentioned? And 2d[sic], If
they were not, is Scott himself free by reason of his removal to Rock Island, in the state of
Illinois…?” Both of these questions led to an even greater and more central question: “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 priveledges, and
immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen?” (i.e. does Scott, having been a
slave, have the constitutional right to sue?)
The Court’s decision (7 against, 2 for) was declared on March 6, 1857. Due to the variance
of opinions on why the Court decided as they did (all seven justices who decided against
Scott wrote opinion papers for the case), the opinion of Justice Taney is generally cited for
the majority. According to Taney, the Court decided that Scott (and hence all negro slaves
or their descendants) was not a citizen of the United States or the state of Missouri, and
thus not entitled to sue in the federal courts. Justice Taney then went beyond this point and
ruled on the entire issue of slavery in federal territories, claiming that slaves were property
and therefore the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.
Most people, whether for or against the decision, viewed it as a political decision and not a
legal one. For the first timne since Marbury vs. Madison in 1803 (and only the second time
ever) the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress [the Missouri Compromise] null and
void. The decision also lowered the Court’s prestige in the North and widened the sectional
cleavage by moving Southerners from the position that slavery could not be kept out of the
territories to the assertion that it must be protected in them.
This information comes from “Dred Scott,” By Robert J. Steamer, Academic American
Encyclopedia. Grolier Electronic Publishing, Danbury, 1995.
The decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
held that a black slave could not become a citizen under the U.S. Constitution.
Dred Scott (c.1795-1858), a slave in Missouri, had been taken by his owner, John
Emerson, into Illinois, where slavery had been prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance of
1787, and into the Louisiana Territory, where slavery was forbidden by the MISSOURI
After his return to Missouri, Scott brought suit (1846) against Emerson’s widow, claiming
that he was free by reason of his residence in free territory. The Missouri supreme court
ruled against him, but after his ownership was transferred to Mrs. Emerson’s brother, John
F. A. Sanford (the name was misspelled in legal records) of New York, Scott brought a
similar suit in federal court. The decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) held that a black slave could not become a citizen under the
U.S. Constitution based on that Scott had not become free by virtue of his residence in a
territory covered by the Missouri Compromise, since that legislation was unconstitutional.
This was viewed as a proslavery decision by the abolitionists, and the case probably
hastened the coming of the Civil War. That issue aside, it was the second time that the
Court had declared an act of Congress unconstitutional, the first having occurred 54 years
earlier, in MARBURY V. MADISON.
Legal Decisions and Essays
Dred Scott v. Sandford
The slavery debate presented supporters and opponents of the institution with two very
important questions: how should fugitives from slavery be treated in jurisdictions where
slavery was illegal, and should a slave brought into a free state by his master be viewed as
The first question was partially addressed by Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution and
by the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850; however the second question had not as yet
During the 1830s and 1840s a slave by the name of Dred Scott accompanied his master, a
surgeon in the U.S. Army, on numerous trips to military posts around the country,
including the free states of Illinois and the territory of Wisconsin. In 1846 Scott sued his
master for his freedom, asserting that his sojourns in free jurisdictions made him free. After
numerous delays, trials, and retrials, the case reached the Supreme Court in 1856. The
court responded with nine separate opinions, and Chief Justice Roger Brook Taney
delivered the deciding opinion.
The ruling was both complex and controversial: the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was
ruled unconstitutional on the grounds that Congress did not have authority to limit the
expansion of slavery; slavery was found to be legal in the territories until the citizens voted
for or against- it; and Africans and their descendants were found to be ineligible for
citizenship in the United States as the framers of the Constitution had not viewed Africans
as citizens. Since African Americans were not viewed by the court as citizens, they could
not file suit. Despite the finality of the court’s decision, the issue of slavery remained
The story of the Missouri slave Dred Scott and his quest for freedom is one of the least
known and yet most influential from the turbulent years leading up to theAbraham Lincoln
would be elected President, the The Early Years: 1809 – 1833
DRED SCOTT, Plaintiff in Error,
JOHN F. A. SANFORD.
(See S. C. 19 How. 393-633.)
Plea in abatement, when may be reviewed — the word “citizen” in the Constitution does not
embrace one of the negro race — negro cannot become a citizen — slave not made free by
residence in a free state or territory — Declaration of Independence does not include slaves
as part of the people — the rights and privileges conferred by the Constitution upon citizens
do not apply to the negro race — Constitution should have the meaning intended when it
was adopted — court may examine other errors besides plea in abatement — Constitution
expressly affirms right of property in slaves — Missouri compromise unconstitutional and
Where a plea in abatement, by defendant, to the jurisdiction of the court below is overruled
on demurrer, and the defendant thereupon pleads in bar upon which issues were joined and
the trial and verdict were in his favor, and the plaintiff thereupon brought the case into this
court by writ of error, and the plea and demurrer below upon it are part of the record;
held, that thls court has power to review the decision of the court below upon the plea in
It is therefore the duty of the court to decide whether the facts stated in the plea, are or are
not sufficient to show that the plaintiff is not entitled to sue as a citizen in the court of the
The provisions of the Constitution of the United States in relation to the personal rights and
privileges to which the citizens of a state should be entitled do not embrace the negro
African race, at that time in this country, or who might afterwards be imported, who had
then been or should afterwards be made free in any state.
Such provisions of the Constitution do not put it in the power of a single state to make out
one of the negro African race a citizen of the United States, and to endue him with the full
rights of citizenship in every other state without their consent.
The Constitution of the United States does not act upon one of the negro race whenever he
shall be made free under the laws of a state, and raise him to the rank of a citizen, and
immediately clothe him with all the privileges of a citizen of any other state, and in its own
The plaintiff in error was a negro slave, and brought into a free State (Illinois), and in the
free territory of the United States for about four years, during which time he was married
to another negro slave who also was in said free territory. One of their children (Eliza) was
born on the River Mississoppi, and another of their children was born in the State of
Missouri, to which state he had returned.
Held, that the plaintiff in error could not be and was not a citizen of the State of Missouri,
within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States, and consequently was not
entitled to sue in its courts.
The legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of
Independence, show that neither the class of persons who had been imported as shaves nor
their decendents, whether they had become free or not, where then acknowledged as part
of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that instrument.
The decendents of Africans who were imported into this country and sold as slaves, when
they shall become emancipated, or who are born of parents who had become free before
their birth, are not citizens of a state in the sense in which the word “citizen” is used in
Constitution of the United States.
The enslaved African race was not intened to be included in, and formed no part of, the
people who formed and adopted the Declaration of Independence.
When the framers of the Constitution were conferring special rights and privileges upon the
citizens of a state in every other part of the Union, it is impossible to believe that these
rights and privilges were intended to be extended to the negro race.
The words of the Constitution should be given the meaning they were intended to bear,
when that instrument was framed and adopted.
Where this court has decided against the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court on a plea of
abatement, it has still the right to examine any questoin presented by excelption or by the
record, and may reverse the judgment for errors committed, and remand the case to the
Cirucit Court for it to dismiss the case for want of jurisdiction.
The right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution.
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 (thirty-six
degrees thirty minutes north latitude), is not warranted by the Constitution, and is therefore
Neither Dred Scott himself, nor any of his family were made free by being carried into
such territory; even if they had been carried their by their owner with the intention of
becoming permanent residents.
Scott was not made free by belng taken to Rock Island in the State of Illinois.
As Scott was a slave when taken into the State of Illinois by his owner, and was there held
as such, and brought back into Missouri in that character,ehlhlY his status, as free or slave,
depended on the laws of Missouri and not of Illinois. He and his family were not free, but
were, by the laws of Missouri, the property of defendant
ERROR to the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Missouri.
On November 2, 1853, Dred Scott, by his attorney, filed in the clerk’s office of the Circuit
Court of the United States for the District of Missouri, the following declaration against the
defendant, John F. A. Sanford:
Dred Scott, of St. Louis, in the State of Missouri, and a citizen of the State of Missouri,
complains of John F. A. Sandford, of the City of New York, and a citizen of the State of
New York, in the plea of trespass for that the defendant heretofore, to wit: on the 1st day
of January, A. D. 1853, at St. Louis in the County of St. Louis and State of Missouri, with
force and arms assaulted the plaintiff, and without law or right held him as a slave, and
imprisoned him for the space of six hours and more, and then and there did threaten to
beat the plaintiff and to hold him in prison, and restrained of his lberty, so that by means of
such threats the plaintif was put in fear and could not attend to his business, and thereby
lost great gains and profits which he might have made and otherwise would have made in
the proseention of his business, to wit: $2,500, and other wrongs to the plaintiff then and
there did, against the peace and to the damage of the plaintiff $3,000.
And also for that the defendent heretofore on the 1st day of January A. D. 1853, with
force and arms at St. Louis aforesaid, an assault did make on Harriet Scott, then and still
the wife of the plaintiff, and then and there did imprision Harriet, and hold her as a slave,
without law or right, for the space of six hours, and then and there did threaten to beat said
Harriet and hold her as a slave, so that by means of the premises said Harriet was put in
great fear and pain and could not and did not attend to the plaintiff’s business, and the
plaintiff lost and was deprived of the society, comfort and assistance of said wife, and
thereby lost great gains and profits, of the value, to wit: of $2,500, and other wrongs to the
plaintiff, the defendent then and there did, against the peace and to the plaintiff’s damage,
And also for that the defenden heretofore, to wit: on the 1st day of January, A. D. 1853,
with force and arms at St. Louis aforesaid made an assault on Eliza Scott and Lizzie Scott,
then and still infant daughters and servants of the plaintiff, and then and there imprisoned
and held as slaves said Eliza and Lizzie, for a long space of time, to wit: six hours, and then
and there did threaten to beat said Eliza and Lizzie and hold them as slaves and restrained
of their liberty, so that by means of the premises, said Eliza and Lizzie were put in great
fear and coud not and did not attend to plaintiff’s business as otherwise they might and
would have done, and the plaintiff thereby lost the comfort, society, service and assistance
of his said children and servants, of great value, to wit: $2,500, and other wrongs to the
plaintiff $3,000, and the plaintiff on account of the aforesaid several grievances, brings
suit, etc. by his attorney