Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857)

The Dred Scott v. Sandford case served as a catalyst for providing blacks civil rights and civil liberties under the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, the case helped put an end to slavery in the United States and granted blacks citizenship, due process rights, equality under the law, and voting rights. Ironically, though, this expansion of rights and liberties to blacks did not come about from the ruling in this case. Rather, the expansion of rights and liberties came about from the country’s struggle to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford.

Dred Scott was born in Virginia in 1799. He was a slave of the Peter Blow family. In 1830, the Blows moved to St. Louis, Missouri. Two years later, Peter Blow died, and Scott was sold to Dr. John Emerson, an army surgeon who traveled across the country. Scott accompanied Dr. Emerson on his travels, which included traveling to the free territories of Illinois, Wisconsin, and upper Louisiana from 1833 to 1843. While in the Wisconsin territory, Scott met and married Harriet Robinson, who also was a slave. As a result of the marriage, Harriet’s ownership was transferred to Emerson. Dred and Harriet had two children. In 1843, Dr. Emerson died, and Emerson’s widow, Eliza Sandford, then began hiring out the Scott family to work for others.

In 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott asked the courts to recognize them as free people, since they had traveled with their master, Dr. John Emerson, to the free territories of Illinois, Wisconsin, and upper Louisiana from 1833 to 1843. The Scotts believed that under the precedent to Rachel v. Walker, 4 Missouri Rep. 350 (1836), they should be granted their freedom, since this Missouri court ruling declared that slaves were entitled to freedom in a slave state if they at one time had residency in a free state. The Rachel v. Walker case, along with other Missouri precedents, established the legal principle in Missouri of ‘‘once free, always free.’’ This was a straightforward case that should have led to the Scotts’ freedom based on the Rachel precedent; however, problems of hearsay led to a mistrial in 1847. Dred Scott pursued his case for freedom once again in 1850 and his case encountered multiple appeals, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

By the time Dred Scott’s case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Mrs. Emerson’s brother, John Sandford, had assumed responsibility for Dr. Emerson’s estate, and thus Scott’s suit was filed against Sandford. Sandford questioned whether Scott had the right to sue in a federal court. Specifically, Sandford questioned whether blacks could be citizens of the United States. Likewise, Sandford’s attorney challenged the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, asserting that Congress did not have the authority to ban slavery in the territories.

In a seven-to-two ruling, Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that blacks were not citizens of the United States. To defend this position, Taney pointed out that this ruling was consistent with the intentions of the men who founded the United States. Taney argued that the language of the Declaration of Independence as well as the history of the times indicated that the country’s founders did not intend for slaves or their descendents to be citizens of the United States. In fact, even if a former slave received his or her freedom, Taney explained that the founding fathers never intended for blacks to be considered citizens.

Moreover, Taney emphasized that this view against citizenship for blacks remained the predominant public opinion during the writing and ratification of the Constitution. This idea, he argued, could be witnessed in the Constitution. In Article I, section 9, the Constitution granted the states the right to import slaves until 1808. Additionally, Article IV, section 2 required the states to return escaped slaves to their owners. Chief Justice Taney argued that these two portions of the Constitution indicated that the framers of the document did not view members of the black race as citizens of the government.

In short, Taney ruled that blacks lacked civil rights and civil liberties. More specifically, the Supreme Court ruled that blacks, freedmen as well as slaves, were not ‘‘citizens’’ within the meaning of the Constitution. Thus, while it was possible for blacks to be citizens of an individual state, the Constitution precluded blacks from being citizens of the United States. As a result, this meant that Scott did not have the right to sue in federal courts, and that he and other blacks were considered ‘‘property’’ under the Constitution. Furthermore, Taney ruled that Scott was still a slave and was not a free man based on the fact that he traveled to free territories in the United States. Finally, Taney went on to declare the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.

Although the Supreme Court’s ruling did not grant Dred Scott his freedom, he and the rest of his family did receive their freedom later that year. Peter Blow’s sons, who helped pay Scott’s legal fees, had promised to purchase the Scott family and set them free if they lost their case in the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1857, Mrs. Emerson sold the Scotts back to the Blow family, who subsequently set Dred and Harriet free. Nine months after receiving his freedom, Dred Scott died of tuberculosis.

The Supreme Court ruling in this case exerted an impact on blacks beyond Dred Scott himself. Reaction to the Dred Scott ruling was mixed and did not settle the controversial slavery issue for the United States. Rather, the Court’s decision only furthered the country’s division over the slavery issue, which ultimately led to the Civil War. The other two branches of government eventually responded with attempts to overcome the issues surrounding slavery. In 1862, Congress passed the Act of June 19, 1862, which prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in any of the territories of the United States. That same year, Congress also passed legislation prohibiting slavery in the District of Columbia and repealed the Fugitive Slave Act. Likewise, in 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which announced that slaves who lived in rebellion states would be free once these states were under the control of the Union army.

Despite these efforts of the legislative and executive branches to eradicate the effects of the Dred Scott case, these efforts were inconsistent with the original Constitution. Consequently, the document had to be amended to overcome the problems of slavery and to promote the civil rights and civil liberties of blacks.

With the end of the Civil War, three Reconstruction amendments were written and ratified to overcome the Dred Scott ruling. Specifically, these amendments recognized and promoted civil rights and civil liberties for blacks. In 1865, slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Likewise, in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment recognized all persons born or naturalized in the United States as ‘‘citizens.’’ This amendment specifically overturned Dred Scott’s ruling that blacks were not U.S. citizens. Moreover, the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited the states from denying blacks, as well as all other citizens, ‘‘equal protection’’ of the laws and ‘‘due process of law.’’ Finally, in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment extended voting rights to black males. Thus, although the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford is notorious for its denial of rights and liberties to blacks, the three constitutional amendments that overturned this ruling have been instrumental in protecting civil rights and civil liberties of all American citizens.

FRANCENE M. ENGEL

References and Further Reading

  • Ehrlich, Walter. They Have No Rights: Dred Scott’s Struggle for Freedom. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.
  • Fehrenbacher, Don Edward. Slavery, Law and Politics: The Dred Scott Case in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
  • Finkelman, Paul. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History With Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.
  • Herda, D. J. The Dred Scott Case: Slavery and Citizenship. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1994.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Rachel v. Walker, 4 Missouri Rep. 350 (1836)

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